Britain votes and reality waits

Chris Patten
7 Min Read

LONDON: I don’t mean to sound as though I am bragging, but the last time the Conservative Party won an election in Britain was 1992, when John Major was Prime Minister. The chairman of the party at the time, running the winning campaign, was me.

We won the election, but I lost my own race for a parliamentary seat and was sent off to Hong Kong as the colony’s last British governor. So I wasn’t around when the Conservative Party, losing the will to govern, tore itself apart in the mid-1990’s over Britain’s role in Europe. As Winston Churchill said, the problem with committing political suicide is that you live to regret it.

Despite piloting the economy through a post-recession recovery, Major lost to Tony Blair in 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative government and bringing a 13-year Labour run, which will probably end when Britain votes for a new government on May 6.

Blair took over a strong economic legacy, and, to be scrupulously fair, he didn’t wreck it. He and his finance minister, Gordon Brown, stuck to their predecessors’ public-spending plans, for example. In Labour’s first nine years of governing, public expenditure as a proportion of GDP was lower than in the comparable Conservative period.

Then we fell into the usual British trap. Brown, who became prime minister in 2007, let spending and borrowing rip, so that when the global crash hit Britain was already suffering from a structural fiscal deficit and a credit bubble. The country was worse prepared for disaster than most others. As a result, whoever wins the election will have an awful job cutting the country’s budget deficit — 12% of GDP — and setting the economy back on the road to sustainable recovery.

The Conservatives should triumph under a young leader, David Cameron, who has hauled them back onto the middle ground of politics where elections are usually won. Labour, under Brown, is unpopular, with the economy in deep trouble and a general sense that the party has run out of ideas. The Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg have surged remarkably, and may even push ahead of Labour in the popular vote. But the structure of the British election is such that a victory for them is almost a statistical impossibility.

Indeed, the opinion polls remain tight. Much will depend on the outcome of TV debates between the leaders, which are being held for the first time in a British election campaign, and which have thus far contributed mightily to the Liberal Democrat surge. Each leader has been carefully groomed to avoid the sort of gaffes that could cost his party the election, and thus far, not one has shot himself in the foot.

If Clegg’s job is almost impossible, Cameron’s job is also much harder than it should be because the British electoral system is tilted heavily against the Conservatives. The more Labour-oriented parts of the United Kingdom — Wales, Scotland, and urban England — are over-represented.

Electorates in constituencies where Labour is usually dominant are smaller, and district boundaries take insufficient account of population shifts. Thus, more votes are needed to elect a Conservative than a Labour MP. In the last election, Labour got 3% more of the popular vote than the Conservatives, but gained 150 more seats. The situation is a bit fairer today, but Cameron still has a steep hill to climb if he is to win.

I think he will do so — not least because the most potent electoral argument today is “time for change.” Voters tend to get rid of governments once the incumbents have lost their most precious attribute: the benefit of the doubt. Labour seems to be in that situation today.

But, whatever the outcome, a new government will face a daunting challenge — challenges that will be even more daunting in the case of a “hung parliament,” which will require either a coalition government or minority government to be formed after the vote. It is not just that tough measures will be required to rein in public spending for years to come. More worrying is that many voters seem to be in denial about that fact. They are likely to find that economic reality, once all the electioneering is over, is a very cold shower indeed.

As a tribal Conservative, albeit it with pretty moderate tendencies and a deep suspicion of ideology, I naturally want Cameron to win. He is clever, decent, and strong. I think he will make a good prime minister. But I don’t envy him the job. It will require leadership skills of a high order to persuade voters that in order to prevent national decline we must curb our appetite for more and more public spending. The old laws of household economics still apply. You can’t spend more than you earn – even in the so-called new economy of the twenty-first century.

I suspect that other countries will have to learn that lesson as well. In Europe, it is not just Greece that is in a mess. The public finances of Spain and Portugal are somewhat sounder, but those countries face huge problems in increasing their competitiveness within the eurozone. In Spain, for example, wages have risen too fast, and productivity has lagged.

We should be on the lookout for political fireworks over the next few years in many European countries as people are forced to confront some uncomfortable verities. It won’t only be in Britain that politics, from time to time, becomes a bit too exciting.

Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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