Five years ago, in the autumn of 2003, I wrote a magazine article predicting who would be at the top of politics ten years hence, in 2013. Reading through it now, I rather wish I hadn't! While some of predictions have indeed come true, Mystic Meg I clearly ain't! I helpfully colour my correct predictions in green and the, ahem, incorrect ones in red. Suffice to say there is rather more red... Anyway, we live by our predictions, so feel free to take the piss in the comments...
As I write this (in October 2003) it is entirely conceivable that within three months Tony Blair could be ousted as Prime Minister and a General Election could follow. A matter of weeks ago, Iain Duncan Smith was considered a dead duck. If the Iraq war goes badly for Tony Blair, IDS could be in Number Ten. Fanciful? Perhaps. But by 2013 our whole political landscape could have changed again.
Will the LibDems emerge as a credible third alternative, or will their current popularity wither in the same way as all their other mouldbreaking moments have come and gone? When Tony Blair eventually goes, would Gordon Brown retain the electoral infallibility of New Labour or will he be an easier enemy to fight for the Tories? How long will the Conservatives continue to tear themselves apart? Whatever the answers to these questions, by 2013 a whole new generation of politicians will be leading the country. And there will be some surprise names among them. Indeed, some of them will be totally new names to the voters of 2003. There are even a few who will be new even to political obsessives like me.
Let’s start off with the party leaders. In theory, Blair, IDS and Kennedy could still be in situ. They are all young enough, but unless Tony Blair has ambitions to beat Lord Liverpool’s record in office it’s safe to say that at the ripe old age of 59 he will be earning money on the US lecture circuit. Having barely survived his first eighteen months in office it is difficult to believe that IDS will be around for another ten years. Charles Kennedy’s hold on his party is also more tenuous than it first appears and if the much vaunted breakthrough fails to arrive in time for the 2005 election, it’s almost certain he would depart. So in 2013 who are the possible party leaders?
It is quite an indictment of Tony Blair that apart from Gordon Brown it is difficult to identify another potential Prime Minister from his current Cabinet. Contenders for Labour Party leader in 2013 will undoubtedly come from the junior ministerial ranks. My top contenders would be Hilary Benn, David Lammy, David Milband, Hazel Blears, Ruth Kelly, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls. The omnipotent David Lammy has it in him to be Britain’s first black Prime Minister, yet colleagues apparently feel he is in danger of believing his own write-ups. No one likes a smart arse so Mr Lammy would be well advised to put his nose to the grindstone for a couple of years rather than indulge in the hyperactivity and self promotion which characterised his first eighteen months in parliament.
Hilary Benn is in danger of going down in history (if you’ll pardon the expression) as the Minister who legalised sex in public toilets, while Ruth Kelly has to be a contender on the basis that if you can have four children and a senior Treasury job without dropping dead of exhaustion you’re capable of anything. Shades of Margaret Thatcher? The leather clad biker Hazel Blears seems to be in the ascendant – Britain’s first biker PM. Hmmm, has a certain ring to it.
Yvette Cooper’s and Ed Balls’s chances of success depend in large part on the patronage of Ball’s current boss Gordon Brown. If Brown does succeed Blair these two are likely to shoot up the greasy pole with almost indecent speed.
Other movers and shakers in the new Labour world of 2013 will almost certainly include Mark Seddon, an old university contemporary of mine. He is the only person I know whose political outlook hasn’t chased a bit in twenty years which of course is both a weakness and a strength. As editor of Tribune he represents the conscience of the Old Labour left but his big challenge will be to find a constituency brave enough to select him.
Paul Richards is a prolific author of think tank pamphlets about the future of Labour and is much hated by the left, yet if he got into parliament at the 2005 election he would undoubtedly become a key player in the new New Labour politics. Some see him as a new Mandelson figure, a reputation he would be well advised to escape from.
Several current junior Ministers who, on the face of it look surefire certainties for top jobs may well fail due to the vagaries their electors. Among these is Christopher Leslie. Although he looks about 15 his surefooted performance in two Ministerial jobs have led to rave reviews among political journalists – especially of the female variety. He is unlikely to hold on to his Shipley seat next time, but that’s what all the experts said in 2001.
Chris Bryant, Douglas Alexander and Oona King are all tipped for the top, but Alexander’s sister Wendy may be the better bet. Fed up with Scottish politics it wouldn’t be surprising if she made the trip south and quickly ended up in the Cabinet.
It is much more difficult to predict who might be leading the Liberal Democrats in 2013 because they could have slipped back into political irrelevance or made their long awaited breakthrough. If the latter is true then Charles Kennedy may well still be the leader, glorying in his own achievement. Otherwise David Laws, Paddy Ashdown’s successor in Yeovil is viewed by many as his natural successor. He is described as having an “enormous brain” (fat lot of good it has done David Willett’s, who has two of them!).
Other tips for the LibDem top include Ed Davey and the right wing Mark Oaten. A LibDem MEP called Nick Clegg, who is desperate to get into Westminster, is another Big Brain who might make it. Lembit Opik has carved out a reputation for himself, but it’s one that he would do well to live down. After Chat Show Charlie the last thing the LibDems will want is another political joker as leader. If only Ming Campbell was ten years younger…
To those Conservatives who still weep at the demise of Michael Portillo, Oliver Letwin seems to be their great white hope in the absence of any other so-called moderniser coming to the fore. Letwin is viewed with great suspicion by the Tory right after his emergence as every Guardian reader’s favourite Tory. Another problem is that he genuinely doesn’t want the job, not now, not ever. Whether he will have changed his mind by his 56th birthday in 2013 is anyone’s guess.
I have always believed that William Hague would one day re-emerge as Tory leader and if you bear in mind that in 2013 he will only be 52 that is not at all fanciful. How fanciful it is to believe IDS will still be Tory leader in ten year’s time is anyone’s guess.
The Tories’ problem is that hardly any MPs from the 1997 or 2001 intake has emerged as a potential leader. John Bercow’s resignation from the Shadow Cabinet has done his career immense harm both in terms of his reputation among his colleagues but also in the country. His oratorical skills and debating abilities are unsurpassed on the Tory benches, yet he’s regarded as prone to bouts of temperamental outbursts which he would do well to control.
David Cameron is another Tory who left wing journalists are keen to promote. Yes, he’s the reasonable face of the Tory Party, yet it’s difficult to point to what he has actually achieved in a short time in Parliament. But he’s certainly one to watch.*
It’s a reflection on the quality of today’s Tory MPs that some seriously promote Boris Johnson as a future leader. God save us. He appears about as comfortable on the green benches as Ann Widdecombe does when she’s sitting next to Michael Howard.
Andrew Tyrie has made a name for himself as a serous thinker and should play a major role in any future Tory administration. Indeed, it is inexplicable why he is currently languishing on the backbenches. But as a leadership contender in 2013? Unlikely, but possible. Some journalists see junior health spokesman Chris Grayling as the best hope from the 2001 intake, yet his blatant ambition has not sat well with some contemporaries.
So if there is a dearth of talent from the last two intakes, will it be any better next time? Of the Tory candidates selected so far, Ed Vaizey in Wantage and the Thatcherite Conor Burns in Eastleigh can both be expected to make an impact. The Tory modernisers are certainly on the march and it is likely that the former party Chief Executive Mark MacGregor and Policy Exchange’s Nicholas Boles will get seats. Other names to lookout for are two candidates of Asian extraction - Sandra Verma, who fought John Prescott last time, and Shailesh Vara, currently a Party Vice Chairman. Esther McVey will add a dash of much needed glamour to the green benches. Will she and boyfriend Ed Vaizey be the Tories’ answer to Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls? Who knows.
And what about those outside the main parties? Adam Price is building a solid reputation in the Plaid Cymru ranks and he could well be Britain’s first gay party leader. Jeffrey Donaldson is tipped as the next Ulster Unionist leader but his temperament may lead to a short term tenure. One of the more interesting areas of speculation is the future for pressure groups, think tanks and parties outside the mainstream. Darren Johnson of the Greens has proved to be a popular and flamboyant member of the GLA and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could give the Greens an acceptable face which helps them propel him into Parliament. Possibly unlikely, but stranger things have happened. Whether the likes of environmental campaigner Zak Goldsmith or the Institute of Ideas’ Claire Fox can or even want to make an impact in mainstream politics is very much open to question.
But of course, as Tony Benn constantly reminds us, politics is about policy not personality, isn’t it? Hmmmm.
* An interesting footnote to this is that three weeks after this article appeared, I attended a dinner at Policy Exchange and guess who I was sat next to... Yup, David Cameron! I had never met him before. To his credit, he said he had read the article and he thought I had asked a very fair question. He defused with consummate ease what might have been a slightly awkward social siutation!