With the BBC Sports Personality of the Year looming this evening my thoughts have turned naturally to the performance this year of our political classes. Who could lay claim to being the political personality of the year for 2011? And who has had an annus horribilis?
Let’s start with Ed Miliband. The Labour leader started 2011 on a bit of a roll, newly elected to his position, with a solid polling lead and with the economy in the doldrums. But he ends the year with the Tories neck-and-neck in the opinion polls, with opponents and ‘friends’ united in their derision, and worst of all having failed to convince the electorate that the economy would be safer in Labour’s hands. All in all he has had at best a thoroughly mediocre year.
So what about the Liberal Democrats? Nick Clegg has performed one useful service: he has finally revealed for psephologists everywhere exactly what is the level of core support for his party. It turns out to be around 9 percent. Stuck at this level all year he has been forced to sit it out in the coalition, put upon and unloved. There is one glimmer of hope: by accident David Cameron has created a major point of difference between the coalition partners, namely their attitude to Europe, and thus by extension to globalisation and trade. If only Mr Clegg can construct a narrative around modernity and openness to the world he may start the long road to recovery in 2012.
In London Boris Johnson has dominated. Though Ken will do his best next year, and may well surprise everyone through better organisation and a talent for publicity, it seems unlikely that anyone other than Boris will be Mayor come the summer. Boris boosters will doubtless see this as increasing his chances of becoming PM one day; but the smart money says that he has found his level, and whilst people will trust him with London Underground they will not trust him with the nuclear button. Boris is, though, in an enviable position: win and he remains Mayor of one of the world’s great cities; lose and he returns to Parliament and surely to the front bench. So he is most definitely a contender for personality of the year.
But he would be run close by the other great beneficiary of devolved power, Alex Salmond. 2011 has been yet another good year for him – he now presides over a government in Scotland with an absolute majority, and is ideally placed to cause mischief and prepare the ground as well as he can for an eventual independence referendum. Of course there are risks for him too – what if, given that final choice, Scots prefer some variation of ‘Devo-Max’ to whatever the SNP propose? But for now he is calling the shots in Scotland, and doing so with aplomb.
Some of the supporting cast are also contenders. George Osborne has had a good, if enigmatic, year. He seems no closer to forging a real bond with the electorate than he did 12 months ago. Danny Alexander has burnished his credentials for becoming Liberal Democrat leader, though he may well start to run the risk of being seen as too cosy with his Conservative mates. Meanwhile Chris Huhne can point to solid achievements this year, in Durban and elsewhere.
And unlike the BBC we do have some women on our shortlist. Not Theresa May or Caroline Spelman, for whom 2011 has been (another) year to forget. No: it has been a good year for Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson In Scotland, and down south Justine Greening has definitely moved forward this year. But the female star of the show has undoubtedly been Yvette Cooper, a rare success on the Labour front bench. She may well, this year, have overtaken her husband in the queue of future Labour leaders-in-waiting.
But coming in with a late charge at the title has been David Cameron. His failings are manifest. At times he doesn’t seem to have gripped the policy agenda – though perhaps this is only by contrast to the hyperactivity of Blair and Brown. But the occasional trips over policy issues continue. The recent incident involving Aidan Burley has just been the latest case of the PM seeming slightly indecisive and weak. The lack of a ‘narrative’ remains. The antipathy of many in the north and in Scotland persists. And his great success of the past few weeks stemmed ultimately from a failure to prepare the ground properly for a European summit.
Yet nothing seems to stick. He is far preferred by voters to Mr Miliband. And that EU summit turned out to be an accidental masterstroke, propelling the Conservatives upwards in the polls and uniting his parliamentary party, without, it now seems, causing the UK to be seriously ostracised in Europe. Mr Cameron has sailed serenely through 2011 without any serious difficulty, and is undoubtedly the leading political figure of the year.
So there we are. Our political personality of the year is David Cameron – somewhat in spite of his actual performance. And as he looks ahead things can only get better in 2012, with falling inflation, the feelgood factor of the Olympics, continued Labour in-fighting (with little sign of an actual change to the party leadership) and best of all Boris sidelined for another few years in City Hall. As he sits at home this Christmas he can afford to raise a glass to 2012. It promises to be an even better year for David Cameron.