Comment: Opportunities and pitfalls for all three party leaders

Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are at the mercy of forces outside their control.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

The summer recess has normally been a time for politicians to relax and recharge, to lick their wounds and recover. It's also an opportunity for the leaders and their followers to plot their strategies for the year ahead in advance of the party conferences. In this week's Sunday papers there's a report suggesting that the Labour party's new plan is to try to paint David Cameron as an old fashioned 'typical' Conservative leader, and that all his talk of compassion and the 'big society' was just a PR exercise.

I have my doubts about this as a strategy, mainly because I suspect a lot of the British public will react with, 'tell us something we don't know'. Decontaminating the Tory brand was an important factor in Cameron winning support at the last election but today the public are primarily concerned with the state of the economy. What the Labour party needs to be doing is looking at themselves and asking why people should vote for them again.

Ed Miliband has had a rocky few months as Labour leader. Part of his problem lies in the fact that the party seems unsure of how to handle its legacy, and how far it should dissociate itself from the Blair/Brown years. In this sense Miliband is in a bind. He can't take credit for the economic successes without reminding people that the credit crunch happened on their watch. Equally he still seems hesitant to take a firm stand on Iraq and Afghanistan. If he plans to attack the Conservatives as a party of the right then he needs to do more to convince voters that Labour is actually a party of the centre-left. A credible alternative economic strategy would play a big part in this.

David Cameron has the most reason to feel satisfied. So far he's managed to dominate the political agenda in a way this country hasn't seen since the beginning of the Blair years. In theory being in a coalition should have severely limited his room for manoeuvre but he's proven a skilled political operator. When he's been forced to climb down over an issue, such as the forests sell off and the NHS reforms, he's been very adept at allowing others to take the blame. He even managed to turn the riots to his advantage. After a few wobbles at the start he used them as an excuse to reinforce the Conservative's image as the party of law and order. 

Libya seems to have given him what all political leaders secretly crave; a short, seemingly successful war, with no casualties on the British side. While many will continue to argue (not unreasonably) that we only got involved because Libya has oil, Cameron will be able to paint himself as a defender of liberty and freedom. The one problem with this is that the situation might deteriorate like our other Middle-East adventures. His main priority at the moment should be making sure that the international coalition doesn't make the same mistakes we did in Iraq. While democracy is important in the long term, in the short term stability is more pressing. Secure, well fed citizens with jobs and homes are much less likely to be tempted down the path of extremism.

The main cloud on Cameron's horizon is the economy. Growth has been weaker than expected and inflation higher. The very real risk that we could sink into a double dip recession, or alternatively a decade of stagflation like Japan faced in the 1990s, is still on the horizon. In both these cases events might be out of Cameron and Osborne's hands as the globalised British economy is at the mercy of the mercurial situation in the USA and Europe. So far the British public have tolerated the cuts as an essential evil. If they don't produce the desired results then the mood could swiftly turn against the party that introduced them.

Nick Clegg has possibly the biggest problem of the three leaders. On the face of it the Conservative party's shift to the right should allow him to make his own party more distinctive. However if the Labour party does manage to reposition itself on the left then Clegg and co will start to look very squeezed indeed.

If you look at the success of the Liberal Democrats since 2001 much of their electoral support has come from disaffected Labour voters. Horrified, both by the direction Tony Blair was taking the party in and the war in Iraq, many shifted their vote to the Liberals. Equally lots of students voted for them in 2010 based on their promise to abolish tuition fees. This is a big block of voters and if Labour manages to successful detoxify itself from the worst excesses of the Blair years then the Liberals could be faced with a collapse in support at the next election. Also the failed AV referendum means that electoral reform will probably be off the table of British politics for at least a generation and the grassroots will not soon forget this.

The one problem for all three party leaders is that so much of their strategies depend on things outside of their control. As Harold MacMillan once said when asked what is most likely to blow a plan off course, 'events, dear boy, events'. The next year in British politics will probably mark a decisive point for all three men in terms of their future successes and failures.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.