x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Britain's next government teeters on the precipice

Westminster likes to call itself the "mother of all parliaments", but at the moment it resembles the mother of all mess-ups.

At the end of the classic British film The Italian Job, the bank robbers are wending their way over the Alps in a bus laden down with stolen gold bars. They have got away with the heist and are busy celebrating. Then the vehicle lurches off the road, and perches perilously on the edge. It cannot go forward, but as they move towards the gold it slides towards the rear, threatening to send the whole lot of them crashing to disaster. "Hang on a minute lads," says Michael Caine's character, as the bus rocks like a pendulum. "I've got a great idea." Britain could use him now, for her government seems equally poised for disaster, without the first clue of how to proceed. Westminster likes to call itself the "mother of all parliaments", but at the moment it resembles the mother of all mess-ups. Last Thursday's general election is starting to look as if it never happened, or if it did, what was the point of it?

Gordon Brown is still in 10 Downing Street but his surprise announcement last night that he would step down as Labour leader to allow David Milliband or another candidate to assume the helm has further clouded the issue. The pound immediately dropped a cent against the dollar. Meanwhile David Cameron is trying to pretend that there is only a slim difference between his and Nick Clegg's party politics, and that soon they will form the next government. Maybe a deal will be cooked up - but it is no longer beyond the realm of possibility that Labour could form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, even though that wouldn't give them a clear majority. But with neither a clear mandate nor a vision, a coalition, whoever forms it, looks doomed from the outset.

There has always been something comical about the Palace of Westminster: the strange character called "Black Rod" who is basically a glorified usher, the back-and-forth arguments between the two party leaders at Question Time twice a week, the faux bonhomie between adversaries who despise each other. And just like a traditional Whitehall farce, politicians in the past few years have been caught in the wrong bedrooms with their trousers down or red-handed with obscene expenses claims. But rather than being amusing, it is now getting ludicrous. First, let's dispel a myth about the election. Many commentators have been saying that the people have spoken and voted for a hung parliament. Utter nonsense. Few Britons are happy about the outcome. The Sun newspaper may have joked the day after the election that there was a squatter in Number 10 - "Man, 59, refusing to leave Downing Street" - but nobody wanted that and few are laughing. It's ironic that in an election that was supposed to be all about change, nothing has happened. It is almost a reversal of the line from Guiseppe di Lampedusa's literary classic The Leopard: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

What we can see quite clearly is that the north-south divide is greater than ever. Except for a handful of red constituencies in inner London and a few isolated enclaves including Oxford East, Southampton West, Exeter, Slough and Luton, the south of England is as blue as Chelsea Football Club. The affluent south-east is the same colour save for Lewes, which again voted in a popular local Liberal Democrat. The west midlands and the north-west and north-east remain Labour strongholds. Even Brown, who on a visit to the north-east called a harmless pensioner a "bigoted woman", was unable to deter them from ticking his box. It appears that Labour supporters north of Stratford-upon-Avon would vote for a donkey if it were wearing a red rosette. Scotland and Wales are equally committed to the Labour cause, except for the Scottish Nationalists. The Tories, who once had good support north of the border, now have only the Scottish county of Dumfriesshire to their name.

While the two public schoolboys, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, are pretending they have much in common, the reality is that besides their expensive educations, they are miles apart. Mr Clegg's gang wants to join the euro, forge closer links with Europe, grant an amnesty to all illegal immigrants who have managed to elude capture for the past 10 years, and scrap the country's nuclear deterrent. Mr Cameron's cronies would impale themselves before they abandoned the queen's head on their currency, want nothing much to do with Europe, think illegal immigrants should be deported, and would go ballistic if forced to give up the Trident missile programme. Mr Cameron might be better off doing a deal with the Scottish Nationalists, led by Alex Salmond, and offer them instead of electoral reform - the carrot that Liberal Democrats are hanging on for - a referendum on secession from the union. Without Scotland, the Tories could carry England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the process Mr Cameron would settle the West Lothian question once and for all - the curious position whereby Scots have their own assembly, while England does not. A Scot gets a vote on English issues and not vice versa.

Instead, we have had paralysis. No deal had been agreed in time for the opening of European financial markets yesterday. Markets will accept most things except uncertainty. Yesterday Mr Darling urged for a speedy solution, telling the BBC, "I'm not saying that tomorrow's the end of the world but I just make the general observation that there does come a point in any negotiations - either you can do a deal or you can't." A cynical observer might add that if it takes them this long to agree on taking office together, what happens when they have an emergency to cope with that demands immediate action? Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, reportedly said before the election that the tough fiscal austerity measures a new government would need to introduce would be so unpopular that the party would not get elected again for a generation. Whoever forms the next government, it may be a poisoned chalice. Mr Brown, the prudent chancellor who became a profligate and unelected prime minister before running up a debt of many billions, perhaps should have concluded that this was a good election to lose and left Downing Street at the first opportunity. rwright@thenational.ae