Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cameron Takes Over as PM

Pretty Much as I Predicted, Except That the Silly Party Won

That's what I get for handicapping horse races in other countries: After my bold prediction last night that Labour was close to making a deal with the Liberal Democrats, the talks collapsed, Gordon Brown resigned and David Cameron is Prime Minster at the head of a Slightly Silly Tory-Lib Dem coalition. (Does that mean this evening Cameron will be getting his visit from the Minister of Magic?)

What happened between Labour and the Lib Dems, the far more Sensible coalition? Well, last time I speculated I got it wrong, but a lot of UK media has talked about back-bench revolts in all parties, and my guess is the Lib-Lab deal was scuttled by an old internal Labour fight that hasn't really been resolved.

Let's rewind to 1994. Labour leader John Smith died suddenly, and the party, fresh off four straight losses to Margaret Thatcher and John Major, found itself in a soul of the party leadership fight (which, to remind you, fills the niche in the system that our presidential nomination process takes).

On the right was Tony Blair, already drawing Bill Clinton comparisons, with his "New Labour" rhetoric and telegenic looks. The Labour wing of the Labour Party wasn't comfortable, but failed to prevail.

It was an epic battle, much like Barack and Hillary only shorter. And much like Barack and Hillary, after Blair prevailed he brought longtime rival Gordon Brown, an old-school-sort, on board in a high-profile post.

That uneasy partnership moved from opposition into government in 1997 and won a second consecutive landslide in 2001. It was more or less understood, explicitly so by the time of the 2005 election, that Brown would eventually take over, and when he did so in 2007 he was elected party leader - and thus Prime Minister - unopposed.

My point here: it's been 16 years since Labour has had a true leadership contest. The New Labour vs. Old Labour fight has been on hold, simmering just below and sometimes above, the surface that whole time.

If you're Old Labour, already frustrated by rightward drift and Blair's controversial role in the Iraq War, do you really want to make a coalition with a centrist third party to form a barely stable government? Especially when the agenda for the next government is fiscal crisis and budget cutting that would embarrass Maggie Thatcher? Why saddle yourselves with that baggage? It's going to be a really good time to be out of power.

A successful Lib-Lab coalition would have inevitably pulled Labour to the economic right, and given New Labour the edge in the upcoming, soul of the party leadership fight. With a new election with a new Labour leader likely within a year, the leadership fight matters even more than usual. Old Labour has decided to make that fight rather than cling to unstable power. Call it a strategic retreat.

If you're really, really geeky, the Guardian has a complete results spreadsheet.

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