All Bets Are Off in Britain’s Messy Election

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LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 09: Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron  and opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband walk towards the State Opening of Parliament on May 09, 2012 in London, England. Despite opposition from Conservative MPS, the Queen is expected to use her speech to push forward reforms in the House of Lords. Plans to split up banks and change rules on executive pay are also due to be addressed by the government. (Photo by  Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband process to the House of Lords, London, to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament in 2013. Photo: WPA Pool/2012 Getty Images

One of the few things I’ve liked about living in London is that there’s a betting shop on every neighborhood high street — sometimes more than one. I don’t step in to the bookie’s window too often, and I remain overall in the black after four years because of one big lucky bet. I figured before repatriating to Brooklyn next month I might put money on Thursday’s general election, but the betting markets have been rendered dull by a knotted and unpredictable race, likely to be followed by a murky round of interparty deal-making and arcane parliamentary ritual. The truth is, however much envious American liberals praise the inevitable mandate of the British system, the makeup of the government won’t be determined by the election, but by behind-closed-doors negotiations afterward. As I write, William Hill has both the Conservative incumbent, David Cameron, and the Labour opposition leader, Ed Miliband, at 10-to-11 odds to be the next prime minister.

Officially the campaign began six weeks ago when Parliament was dissolved, but the candidates of the major parties have been in place since 2010 (when the fratricidal Miliband edged out his brother David for the Labour leadership, purging the party of too deep a connection to Tony Blair). So you could consider the cycle either very short in comparison to the U.S., or practically permanent, by any truly reasonable measure. During this long campaign, the Tories, with the Lib Dems in their coalition side car, picked up the baton from New Labour, showing that the three parties had converged, with slight variations, on a set of policies inherited from Margaret Thatcher: austerity, privatization, and acquiescence to whatever globalization brings. (There remains, too, a shared gusto for joining in on most American foreign adventures.) The main question of the race, then, is, who will take apart Britain’s welfare state at a slower pace? Meanwhile, the most important story of the campaign probably isn’t who will win; from the left and the right, under banners of nationalism (Scottish and anti-Continental), outlying parties have charged in to steal ink from the Tories and Labour (and their votes at the polls). The Scottish National Party (SNP) and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) have yet to force a national realignment, but it may only be a matter of time.

It has been a messy few years. Future authors of historical novels (Britain’s favorite genre) will no doubt take in some of these flashpoints: Cameron’s failure to win a majority in 2010 against Gordon Brown (portray Brown as tragic hero); Cameron’s marriage of necessity to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (in depicting “Clegg-mania,” note his telling an interviewer that he’d slept with not more than 30 women before marriage); the Lib Dems’ failure to make good on their electoral promise to prevent the Tories from imposing £9000 annual tuition fees on domestic university students (cue set piece at the 2010 student protests); the Cameron-supported NATO air campaign against Qaddafi’s Libya (enlist a character in the Royal Air Force); the London riots of 2011 protesting the shooting by police of the black and unarmed Mark Duggan (here’s your dose of underclass rage); the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking by the Murdoch papers and the rest of the U.K. tabloid press (include the texts between News Corp villain Rebekah Brooks and Cameron in which she explains that “lol” doesn’t mean “lots of love”); the expensive pageant of the 2012 London Olympics, presided over by bloated Brian Jones–look-alike Mayor Boris Johnson (there’s your inspirational panoramic central chapter); a constant stream of banking scandals, from Libor rate-fixing to drug money laundering (cut tragically to the banker who threw himself to his death from the balcony of the Tate Modern); Parliament’s revolt against Cameron when he sought permission to join the strikes against Syria that the U.S. itself soon enough abandoned (crosscut to the specter of British teens, male and female, leaving the country to join ISIS); the media sensation of UKIP’s rise under the clownish xenophobe Nigel Farage (seen through the eyes of a Bulgarian migrant farm laborer); and the dramatic defeat last fall of the referendum for Scottish independence (watch how the prospect of a break tears apart a pair of twentysomething twins, one in London, the other in Glasgow).

If all that sounds exciting — and I didn’t mention the scare over the contamination of the nation’s beef supply with dreaded Continental horse meat — be aware that on a slow news day in London the national news can sound distinctly sub-local and occasionally archaeological to an American ear: funding for new train line debated; study shows hospital underperforming; remains of medieval monarch found in provincial parking lot reinterred. Then there’s the never-ending stream of pedophilia scandals, enveloping television stars, rock musicians, government officials, and street gangs. Perhaps that’s why the nation compensates with a wholesome fascination with Prince William and Kate Middleton’s offspring.

The birth of Princess Charlotte last weekend gave the tabloid front pages a break from a race that had incurred national fatigue in just a few weeks. (It’s said to have given the bookies a headache, as many put money on the right name.) Last week the cover of the satirical weekly Private Eye showed Cameron dozing and mid-snore. (Was it drowsiness or boredom the week before that rendered him momentarily confused when asked which football team he supports?) The polls have been static for months and, as the bookies know, it’s become clear that neither the Tories nor Labour will be able to win a majority. There are a total of 650 seats in Parliament, and five of those are regularly won by Sinn Fein, whose MPs have always refused to come to London and pledge their loyalty to the queen. So a prime minister needs the support of 323 MPs to govern.

From there the arithmetic is fairly simple, if somewhat tedious to elaborate in detail. The Tories are predicted to win about a dozen more seats (around 280) than Labour will (around 270), but the Tories’ logical coalition partners, the Lib Dems (about 25) and the Unionists of Northern Ireland (about 8), may not gather enough to put them over. Labour might gain enough support from the Scottish National Party (polling at around 50 seats) and the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru (about three; pronounced like PLIDE CUMREE), but has ruled out a coalition with them, since their ultimate aim is to “tear Britain apart.” The SNP has never had more than 11 seats in Westminster, and that was in 1974. But the autumn’s referendum has led to a political realignment that wrecked Labour’s long-standing dominance in Scotland. You could see it as a Cameron gamble followed by a Cameron double-cross. He allowed Scotland an independence referendum — instead of a vote for so-called “devomax,” a version of the devolved legislature the Scots already have but on steroids — then campaigned with Miliband against it. Once the no vote was achieved, after a scary sprint to the finish, he turned around and stoked English nationalism (proposing special Westminster sessions of “English votes for English laws”) and portraying a Prime Minister Miliband as hostage to the schismatic Scots.

The consensus winner of the one televised debate featuring the party leaders (except those from Northern Ireland) was the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon. With most of Scotland’s seats seemingly in her pocket, she has little to lose and little to gain, thanks in part to the U.K.’s first-past-the-post voting system. By a proportional voting system, which Sturgeon has said she backs, the SNP would command about half as many seats as they’re now projected to win, and the biggest winner would be immigrant-bashing UKIP with 99 seats. That’s 98 more than the bookies think UKIP will win tomorrow, running on the basic demand, to which Cameron has pledged to accede in an attempt to neutralize them, of a national referendum on withdrawal from the European Union. That may not sound so ugly: Like any politician promoting policies that align with racism, Nigel Farage has to constantly assert that his problem isn’t with, say, Romanians (free as E.U. citizens to enter the U.K. without restrictions as of 2014) but with Romania and its post–Iron Curtain backwardness and poverty. He also likes to say that most new cases of HIV in the U.K. are diagnosed in foreign “health tourists,” sapping the National Health Services; when his debating rivals tell him he should be ashamed of himself, he smirks. 

In the past two weeks Cameron and Miliband moved into desperation mode. For Cameron this meant displaying some enthusiasm. Last Monday he appeared self-consciously caffeinated at an event for small business owners, telling them “taking a risk, having a punt, having a go — that pumps me up … If I’m getting lively about it, it’s because I feel bloody lively about it.” It wasn’t a look that suited the toff. The week’s major innovation was his pledge to pass a law not to raise taxes. Its major Freudian slip was calling the election “career-defining” when he meant “country-defining”; it is, after all the last step in his ascent from the post of Head Boy at Eton to the history books.

Miliband, for his part, has been more impressive than most expected — I expected a complete vacuum of charisma and a persistent creep to the right — and he seemed to be cruising to the finish by collecting an endorsement from the heretofore anti-voting jester Christ of the vulgar Marxist left, Russell Brand, and the online adoration of a horde of Twitter-happy teenage girls, the so-called Milifans. Miliband is the son of credentialed Marxist intellectuals who survived the Holocaust, yet his own politics have been closer to the neoliberal Third Way paved by Blair. Still, he’s seemed to many the preferable alternative.

By the weekend people were talking about Miliband’s victory as an inevitability. Then on Sunday he presented his answer to the Tories’ tax-preventing law vow: an eight-foot stone tablet engraved with Labour’s six primary campaign pledges that he promised to implant in the garden of 10 Downing Street. To what Stonehenge voters was this gesture meant to appeal? It got Miliband on the front page of the Guardian and the Financial Times (most of the rest stuck with Princess Charlotte), but it also gave Cameron the chance to respond in his default mode of dismissive irony. He called the tablet a “tombstone” and said, “It would look terrible! The garden is a very nice place.” What is with the English and their gardens?

There is a third possibility besides the toff and the Labour leader who doesn’t look like he’s ever worked with his hands: a Parliament so divided it dissolves, forcing another election with new party leaders. There have been leaks from within the parties that this is what they secretly want, though this could be, as a Le Carré character might put it, so much “muddying pools and poisoning wells” by the leaders’ rivals. In the case of such an outcome, there’s no guessing who’ll be prime minister in the autumn, and no betting markets available for it yet. (I suppose I’d put my money on Boris.) I’m still here for three more weeks. I guess I’ll save my dosh for the Man Booker International Prize. Ladbrokes has Laszlo Krasznahorkai at 7-to-1.

All Bets Are Off in Britain’s Messy Election