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David Cameron faces a general election on May 7 and the polls are tight. His campaign advisers insist that undecided voters will break in his favour but if they are wrong, Labour’s leader Ed Miliband will replace him in Number 10. In any event, the election could produce a messy hung parliament and considerable political risk for business. Speaking to the Financial Times en route to Birmingham, where he is campaigning, the 48 year-old prime minister admits that his repair job for Britain is not complete. He dismisses criticism that Great Britain has turned into “little England” and says another five years in power would confirm the nation’s status in the world. “The first thing is finish the job,” he says.
Business leaders complain he’s anti-capitalist, cartoonists depict him as Mr Bean and his personal polls are dire. Yet he will be prime minister if the Labour party wins the general election. Indeed, the Labour leader is convinced he will become Britain’s prime minister in three months’ time, and that voters will embrace his agenda of tackling inequality and taming the excesses of capitalism. Meeting Miliband in person can come as a shock to those who have formed their view of him through the prism of a hostile press or through his stiff, soundbite-ridden television appearances. Sipping a black Americano in Belfast City Airport’s coffee bar, he is witty and animated, exuding an almost boyish earnestness. His dark eyes are less panda-like away from the television lights.
The slightly dishevelled figure in the tracksuit and T-shirt stoops down and carefully scoops up the dog excrement deposited on the Downing Street lawn by Lola, a diminutive bichon frise. It is shortly after 6am on a February morning. The security cameras swivel as the man and his winsome dog complete their morning constitutional, the start of a normal day for George Osborne. The early morning ritual serves as a metaphor for the task that Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer says he has performed for the nation: clearing up the mess left by the last Labour government, putting the country on the path to recovery. It is an economic record that Osborne hopes will secure victory for the Conservative party in Britain’s general election on May 7.
If Ed Miliband defies the bookmakers’ odds and makes it into Downing Street in May, he has a difficult decision in his inbox: what to do with Ed Balls. The two Eds have worked together for two decades: as advisers to former chancellor Gordon Brown, as MPs, as ministers and — since 2010 — as the two most senior figures in Labour. But would Mr Miliband give the other Ed the job he craves: letting him control all tax and spending decisions as chancellor of the exchequer, commanding Britain’s Treasury? The leader has never confirmed that Mr Balls would be chancellor if Labour wins the general election on May 7. The relationship is marked by personal rivalry, competing ideology and — sometimes — mutual suspicion.
As he settles into his second term as Tory mayor, the man once dismissed as “Buffoon Boris” has now clocked more than five years as head of Europe’s financial capital, during which time he has won re-election, presided over the hosting of the London Olympics, and seen the capital strengthen its hold on the UK economy. But for the first time, Johnson makes a startling admission. He is starting to have the first pangs of regret that he is not able to take part in the biggest debates shaping the future of Britain and its role in the world: matters of war and peace and not just policy on public transport, crime, housing and squirrels. Will he confirm he still wants to be prime minister?
She is the longest-serving home secretary for more than 50 years and the most powerful Conservative woman since Margaret Thatcher. Dismissed by some as “boring”, she’s now the bookies’ favourite for next Tory leader. Her success makes her an intriguing figure at the top of his government: too popular with Tory activists to demote, too dangerous to promote. When May publicly clashed with education secretary Michael Gove in June in a row over Islamist infiltration of Birmingham schools, Cameron was furious with both ministers. But as one Downing Street insider confessed at the time: “Theresa is untouchable.” A month later, it was Gove — one of Cameron’s best friends — not May who lost his cabinet post in the reshuffle.
He is the busiest, spikiest, most complex — and by far the most divisive — education secretary in living memory. But is he also a Conservative party leader in the making? Under the intense gaze of Lenin and Malcolm X, Michael Gove is setting out his plan to break the grip of a bourgeois elite that has taken hold of Britain, seizing key positions in public life, including those at the heart of government — his government. “It’s ridiculous,” splutters Gove, Britain’s education secretary, as he reflects on the immaculately connected and expensively educated inner circle of David Cameron, his friend and the country’s Conservative prime minister. Four of this exclusive group went to just one private school: Eton College, Cameron’s alma mater. “I don’t know where you can find a similar situation in any other developed economy.”
After two years of criticism and abuse, the Lib Dem leader is about to attempt the most unlikely reconstruction of a political brand seen in British politics in recent years. Meeting Nick Clegg is always something of a surprise. Even his own aides admit the public perception of the Lib Dem leader is of a weak and demoralised politician “trapped” in a coalition. Yet in person, Clegg always seems chipper and unfailingly optimistic. “The fact is that Nick sees it completely differently,” says one friend. “He thinks the coalition is working well, tackling Labour’s economic legacy. He believes he is delivering on issues like social mobility or reforming tax, welfare or education.” Indeed, Clegg thinks the Lib Dems are getting far more out of the coalition than anyone might reasonably expect, given they only won 57 seats at the last election. His problem is getting the public to believe it.
After his “declaration of war” on Rupert Murdoch, Vince Cable’s days seemed to be numbered. Yet, the scourge of the banks and boardroom greed is back. Like two other iconic British politicians — London mayors Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone — Cable holds the rare distinction of being identifiable by his first name alone. But who exactly is Vince? “I am a bit of a lefty on some issues,” Cable confirms, but he says he combines it with a Scandinavian or Canadian belief in being “very open, operating within world markets, not protectionist”. He also endorses George Osborne’s tough plan to correct Britain’s budget deficit, even if he believes more can be done to get capital projects going within the fiscal framework, something he calls “Plan A plus”.
David Laws was the only cabinet minister to lose his job during the expenses scandal, brought down in spectacular fashion after only 17 days as the Treasury’s chief secretary in 2010. But politics is only a small part of the story. Laws’s demise was especially painful politically, given that he gave up a millionaire’s lifestyle working in the City to join the Liberal Democrats, an apparently curious career choice given that the third party was seen as a refuge for eccentric lefties that had last tasted real power in the 1930s. Laws was central to the project to realign the Lib Dems to the right and was part of the negotiating team that agreed the coalition with the Conservatives after last year’s hung parliament.
For David Cameron and Britain’s other mainstream politicians, Ukip’s maverick leader now poses a clear and present danger. Is it time to take Nigel Farage seriously? Behind the jokey façade is a man with a deadly serious intent: to smash open the British political system and lead the UK out of the European Union. Although Ukip has been around for 20 years and won 13 seats in the last European elections, the party’s rise under Farage’s leadership has been remarkable. The selection of Diane James as Ukip’s candidate in Eastleigh is hailed by Farage as evidence that the party is broadening its base, and Farage describes as “moronic” the portrayal of his party as a bunch of be-blazered men drinking in the 19th hole.
Could Chuka Umunna be the British Barack Obama – or maybe, more likely, the next Tony Blair? Some believe the shadow business secretary is a future leader of the Labour party. Umunna sharply divides opinion. Good-looking, articulate, new-media-savvy, a formidable TV performer and strangely unpolitical — “I’m not a pugilist” — one can see why Conservative HQ (whom he suspects of digging up the Wiki-scandal) has its guns trained on the shadow business secretary. Yet he is not universally popular among his own colleagues, who see more style than substance. “He just has a knack of alienating people,” said one experienced Labour MP. “He is probably the most natural communicator I’ve seen since Tony Blair. The problem is that each week he has fewer supporters than he did at the start of the week.”
When Sir Jeremy Heywood was a young civil servant, in the foothills of the climb that would take him to the top of the British establishment, he was a notoriously unreconstructed smoker. One day, a Treasury colleague bet him a good dinner that he could not give up for a month, telling him, “I don’t think you can do it.” It was the last cigarette Heywood ever smoked. An iron will has helped to make Heywood, knighted in 2012, the most influential single figure in David Cameron’s Number 10. Yet the tourists who congregate at the gates to Downing Street, angling for a glimpse of the men and women running the country, would scarcely spare a glance for the tall, greying 51-year-old with the wire-rimmed glasses.
In depth: UK election 2015