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A decade which was far too long in British politics

Reading Time: 12 minutes

As the decade began, Gordon Brown was ensconced in Downing Street and preparing to fight his first general election. Having succeeded Tony Blair following years of tensions between them, the former chancellor enjoyed a solid start to life in Number 10. But Mr Brown decided not to take the risk of a snap election and the rest was history. His premiership became dominated by the financial crisis, as he battled to steady the financial system and shore up public confidence. A youthful and fresh-faced leader of the opposition called David Cameron blamed Labour and the perception seemed to stick in the public consciousness. After more than a decade in the wilderness, the Conservatives had sought to change their image and modernise.

Mr Cameron, the energetic “heir to Blair”, stood in stark contrast to a Labour Party that had been worn down by the stresses and strains of 13 years in office. When the result came in May 2010, Labour was out of power. It spent the rest of the decade trying to win it back.

The election campaign itself saw a first in British politics – head-to-head TV debates between the party leaders. Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, joined David Cameron and Gordon Brown on stage. And it turned out that people liked what they heard. Given equal billing and exposure alongside his two rivals, Mr Clegg shone.

Mr Brown appeared to fall over himself to agree with the points the Lib Dem leader was making, with “I agree with Nick” becoming the catchphrase of the night. Incredibly, one post-debate poll had Mr Clegg as the most popular party leader since Sir Winston Churchill. But the phenomenon did not carry over into the election. The Lib Dem vote share went up by 1%, but the party’s number of MPs dropped from 62 to 57.

The 2010s saw a very rare thing in British politics – a coalition government. When the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, David Cameron made the bold move to pursue a coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.

After days of frenzied negotiations that saw a last-ditch effort from Gordon Brown to hang on to power, an agreement between the two parties was struck. Mr Cameron became Britain’s youngest prime minister since 1812, while Mr Clegg became his deputy. In one of the more notable news conferences of the decade from the Downing Street rose garden, Mr Cameron promised to “take Britain in a historic new direction”.

Mr Clegg acknowledged the arrangement presented “big risks”, but vowed that the coalition would be a “bold, reforming government”. To the surprise of many, it went the distance and lasted for an entire parliament.

Although Brexit has dominated British politics recently, it is worth remembering the defining issue of the first half of the decade that continues to loom large. When they came to office in 2010, the Conservatives took the decision to cut public spending in order to get Britain’s finances in order. David Cameron has consistently argued that this was made necessary by the state Labour left the public purse in. But critics have accused him of making a heartless political choice that continues to have consequences. An unrepentant Mr Cameron stuck with the policy throughout his time in Downing Street and the issue became the prism through which much of politics in the 2010s was viewed. The Tories stuck to the line that only they could manage the economy – and that a return to a Labour government would put the recovery at risk. For Labour, the question of how to frame its response bedevilled it for much of the decade.

However, the complete absence of a mea culpa could be taken as a sign that the party had not learned lessons from the crash. As the decade wore on, the British public appeared to tire of the seemingly relentless slog of austerity. Labour’s better-than-expected performance in the 2017 election – in which Jeremy Corbyn’s party stood on an anti-austerity ticket – seemed to mark a shift. The minority government of Theresa May responded by turning the spending taps back on – and both main parties went into the 2019 election promising varying degrees of public spending and investment. But while austerity looks like it has been consigned to the history books, its effects continue to be felt away from Westminster.

The 2010s gave us something unprecedented – a public falling out between two brothers who wanted to be prime minister. For years, David and Ed Miliband had been rising up the ranks of Labour, with both viewed as ones to watch. When Gordon Brown resigned as leader in the wake of Labour’s 2010 defeat, David was seen as the frontrunner to replace him.

The older brother was a protege of Tony Blair and looked like a decent bet to take on the Labour leadership. But Ed had other ideas. He joined the race and managed to narrowly defeat his brother. Their relationship has never recovered.

Referendums were very much in vogue in the 2010s, with a hat-trick of public votes on key issues. The second of these came in 2014, when voters in Scotland were given the chance to have their say on the more than 300-year-old union between the two nations. The eventual result was a decisive win for the pro-union Better Together campaign, but it was not all plain sailing.

There was panic when an opinion poll put the “Yes” campaign in the lead for the first time. This prompted promises of further powers if Scots voted to stay, as well as a high profile intervention from the Queen that was widely viewed as helping the pro-union side. But the vote did not put the issue to bed once and for all.

Elections give voters the chance to give parties a kicking – and 2015 was a bloodbath for the Liberal Democrats.The party came close to a Westminster wipeout, going from 57 seats to just eight.

Five years in coalition had taken its toll, but it was the 2010 U-turn on tuition fees that proved the most damaging. The Lib Dems had vowed to oppose any rise in fees, but in coalition the party agreed to a hike up to £9,000 a year. Mr Clegg eventually apologised.

David Cameron, by contrast, defied expectations and managed to win a small majority in 2015. Much of the talk during the campaign was about the prospect of another hung parliament. Tory warnings of the possibility of a minority Labour government backed by the SNP seemed to hit home with voters.

For Labour, the party went backwards from 2010. Ed Miliband lost 26 seats and promptly resigned. The British public, it seemed, never warmed enough to the Labour leader.

There was a certain awkwardness to him, an Alan Partridge vibe that he could not shake. During the election campaign itself there was the EdStone (a stone tablet that Labour carved six of its pledges into) and his declaration that “hell yes, I’m tough enough” to be PM. And who can forget the 2014 picture of him awkwardly eating a bacon sandwich?

For much of his parliamentary career, Jeremy Corbyn was a relative unknown – a diligent campaigner and studious local MP, but not someone who would make national headlines. That all changed in 2015, when he improbably won the Labour leadership in a landslide. Initially considered a rank outsider, a number of MPs nominated him to widen the debate. But a change in the rules – to a one member one vote system – benefitted Mr Corbyn hugely.

The energised Labour’s grassroots with his anti-austerity platform and pitched himself as the change candidate. And when his election was confirmed in September 2015, he set about transforming the party. But Mr Corbyn’s shift to the left (which included advocating an ambitious programme of nationalisation, tax rises for the wealthy and huge sums of investment) reopened old wounds. For much of the second half of the decade, Labour seemed to be in a perpetual state of civil war.

Unions and the membership loved Mr Corbyn, but many of his MPs wanted nothing to do with him. There was a farcical leadership challenge in 2016 that saw Mr Corbyn win an even bigger victory than in 2015. The 2017 election quelled the disquiet – and gave his critics pause for thought.

But another snap election two years later dealt the Corbyn project a fatal blow, with Labour registering its worst performance since the 1930s. The party enters the 2020s with a lot of soul searching to do.

He may have failed seven times to get elected as an MP, but Nigel Farage proved to be one of the most influential politicians of the decade. The causes and factors behind the Brexit vote are legion, but there can be no doubt that the former UKIP leader was pivotal in there being a referendum in the first place. David Cameron once dismissed UKIP members as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, but the 2010s saw the party complete its metamorphosis from a fringe pressure group to a political force.

It was UKIP’s rise, allied with pressure from his backbenchers, that prompted Mr Cameron to make his 2013 pledge to hold a referendum if the Tories won the 2015 election. That election marked the high point of the party’s Westminster fortunes, with UKIP coming third in terms of vote share. The first past the post voting system meant UKIP only had one MP, but the fact it finished second in 120 constituencies showed its breadth of support.

When Britain voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016, the result hit the establishment like a body blow. Brexit has dominated politics ever since.

The clarion call to “take back control” excised voters more than the Remain side’s steady as she goes “stronger in” message. The Conservative psychodrama on Europe, which did so much damage to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, came back with a vengeance.

Labour too has been gripped by the fallout, with the party grappling with how to reconcile the support for Brexit among its traditional voters and the pro-Remain stance of its membership.

The Brexit vote has reignited the debate around Scotland’s place in the Union, with the SNP renewing its push for independence. The 2020s may well see the Union come under threat once more – and will be a key story to watch in the next decade.

It is remarkable to think now, but Theresa May did actually enjoy a honeymoon period after she entered Downing Street in July 2016 as Britain’s second female prime minister. Having largely kept her head down during the EU referendum campaign, Mrs May emerged as the consensus candidate to succeed David Cameron.

Boris Johnson stunned Westminster by abandoning his leadership bid, having been betrayed by campaign manager Michael Gove. And when her only remaining rival pulled out, Mrs May became PM without the need for a full-blown leadership contest.

She promised her government would be “driven not by the interests of the privileged few” but by those who were “just managing” to get by. And for the first nine months or so Mrs May did not do too badly. But the beginning of the end came when she decided to call a snap election to strengthen her hand in the Brexit talks. Mrs May ran a presidential-style campaign, focusing on her own leadership and personality rather than sharing the limelight with her party and ministers.

Add in a controversial manifesto that appeared to alienate the party’s core support, and you can see why the gamble backfired spectacularly. One moment during the campaign has gone down in infamy. It came when Mrs May performed a U-turn on plans to reform adult social care. Facing questions from journalists, she declared: “Nothing has changed, nothing has changed.”

The phrase came to embody the criticism that she was “robotic” and unable to display the political agility of a good leader. At the start of the campaign there were predictions of a Tory landslide. When the nation’s verdict came in, Mrs May was battling to stay in Downing Street in a hung parliament.

She struck a deal with Northern Ireland’s DUP and managed to remain PM for a further two years. But it felt like Mrs May was merely in office and not in power.

A zombie government stumbling on, somehow taking blow after blow as the Brexit crisis consumed Westminster. High-profile resignations (including the departures of Mr Johnson as foreign secretary and David Davis as Brexit secretary), Commons defeats, you name it, Mrs May had to deal with it.

Her time in Number 10 also saw what was probably the most remarkable party conference speech ever. In a turn of events that seemed straight out of The Thick Of It, a comedian handed her a fake P45, Mrs May struggled through a bad cough and saw the backdrop to the podium start to fall apart.

A Brexit deal was agreed in November 2018, but it was dead on arrival. When MPs passed judgement on it the following January, their verdict was damming – the biggest ever defeat for a government. Two further defeats followed as Mrs May’s premiership became bogged down in the Brexit quagmire.

She also managed to survive two votes of no confidence – from her own party and parliament as a whole. Having made history in March 2017 by formally triggering the process of Britain’s EU exit, Mrs May twice suffered the ignominy of having to ask for a delay to Brexit. It is remarkable that Mrs May lasted in Downing Street as long as she did.

But her position eventually became untenable and in May 2019, Mrs May outlined the timetable for her departure. In an emotional statement, she said it had been the “honour of my life” to be PM and “serve the country I love”. A leadership election followed, with Mr Johnson easily defeating Jeremy Hunt. After coveting the top job for years, he now had his chance.

Before moving on to Boris Johnson’s premiership, it is worth remembering one of the key figures of the decade. Commons Speaker John Bercow often took centre stage in the Brexit drama, something he evidently relished. Under his reign as Speaker, from 2009 to November 2019, he made a number of controversial Brexit rulings.

This led to accusations he was straying out of the bounds of his authority and unduly favouring Remain supporters. He survived numerous attempts to remove him, as well as revelations about his expenses and allegations of bullying, which he denied. As international attention focused on the unfolding Brexit chaos, Mr Bercow became something of a celebrity, with foreign media organisations delighting in his verbose put-downs and constant bellows of “order!”

Boris Johnson came to office promising to take Britain out of the EU by the new deadline of 31 October. Where Theresa May failed, he would succeed. Or at least that was the plan. Much of the debate during the early months of his premiership was about whether he was sincere about getting a new deal, or whether no-deal was the true goal. And when he controversially moved to suspend parliament for weeks in the run-up to the new Brexit deadline, opposition MPs smelt a rat.

So they took control of Commons business and managed to pass legislation (the so-called Benn Act) designed to avoid this scenario, before the prorogation took effect. The suspension was later ruled unlawful, sparking claims from Mr Johnson’s critics that he had misled the Queen. An October dash to Brussels produced what many in Westminster thought was impossible: a renegotiated Brexit deal.

But the breakthrough was a false dawn. MPs withheld their approval for it and the PM was left with no choice but to comply with the Benn Act and ask for another Brexit delay. With the deadlock continuing, Mr Johnson decided to go for a high stakes gamble.

With a no-deal Brexit at the end of October off the table, opposition MPs agreed to give the PM what he wanted: an election. A first December poll since the 1920s pitted Mr Johnson and his “Get Brexit Done” message against Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to negotiate a new deal with Brussels and put it to a referendum. While the Tories hammered home their Brexit line, Labour sought to broaden out the campaign to include issues like the NHS, austerity, taxes and public spending.

When the verdict of the people came in, it was better than the PM dared to hope. Mr Johnson had pulled off a victory to rival Margaret Thatcher in her heyday, taking dozens of seats in traditional Labour heartlands and redrawing the political map. He had secured a commanding majority of 80 – the Tories’ best performance in terms of seats since the Iron Lady’s third election victory in 1987.

When the verdict of the people came in, it was better than the PM dared to hope. Mr Johnson had pulled off a victory to rival Margaret Thatcher in her heyday, taking dozens of seats in traditional Labour heartlands and redrawing the political map.

He had secured a commanding majority of 80 – the Tories’ best performance in terms of seats since the Iron Lady’s third election victory in 1987.

Barring some unforeseen crisis or calamity, he will have the chance to join the likes of Gladstone, Disraeli, Churchill, Atlee, Thatcher and Blair in the pantheon of Britain’s most influential leaders (for good or ill depending on your viewpoint). As we enter the 2020s, it is Boris Johnson’s Britain.

British politics has its protagonist for the decade to come.

From Sky News 

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