Tectonic plates shifting in British politics

With Prime Minister Tony Blair entering his final years in power, the youthful David Cameron taking over the Conservatives and the recovering alcoholic Charles Kennedy toppled as Liberal Democrat leader, British politics is livening up after a long spell of apathy.

At the next general election, set for May 2010 at the latest, none of the three main party leaders from the May 2005 contest will be entering the ring.

Centre-left Labour Party chief Blair (52) in power since 1997, has vowed not to stand for a fourth consecutive term in office, but has pledged to go the distance in the current Parliament.

Michael Howard (64) who led the main opposition right-of-centre Conservatives back into the foothills in their long climb back to power, resigned in October, claiming he was too old to lead the march forward to the next election.

Cameron (39) took the Conservative colours in December and has since steered the party towards the centre, the ground Labour colonised to take office in 1997, worrying many in the Labour ranks.

The left-leaning centrist Lib Dems, the third biggest party, are themselves seeking a new leader after the forced resignation of Kennedy last week after the 46-year-old admitted he had been battling the bottle.

“What I do detect is a shifting of the political tectonic plates; a sense that change is coming,” the Scot said at the New Year, unaware of what was coming round the corner.

Blair said this week: “2006 is a very critical year and a very interesting time in British politics.”

Cameron’s meteoric rise onto the main stage has shaken things up at the top. In a matter of weeks, the telegenic Cameron, a relatively unknown Member of Parliament six months ago, has burst through, surrounded by a young team and armed with a slick style of presentation.

He has shaken off the doctrine of Conservative titan Margaret Thatcher, saying he will not be “the prisoner of an ideological past”, and shifted onto themes not traditionally associated with his party, such as poverty and the environment.

He has also pulled off a few high-profile coups, recruiting as advisors leading anti-poverty activist Bob Geldof and anti-nuclear ecologist Zac Goldsmith (30) son of the late billionaire businessman James Goldsmith.

The Cameron effect has seen the Conservatives rise in the polls after a decade of flatlining and has added to the agitation in the Labour Party.

Blair, ever the optimist despite the clock ticking on his time in power and his troubles in convincing Labour MPs to back his reforms, refuses to see Cameron as a threat and has yet to launch a direct assault on his rival.

“When you read what the Tories are trying to do, it is the most enormous compliment to what we have achieved,” Blair said, proving that his “New Labour ideas are in the ascendant”.

Blair said shifting his party to the left to open up ground between Labour and the Conservatives would be “the kamikaze strategy… the daftest thing beyond belief”.

Blair’s Finance Minister Gordon Brown (54) his presumed heir as Labour chief, is itching to gain the keys to 10 Downing Street, and apparently keen to lay into Cameron, seemingly his opposite number at the next election.

Cameron’s relative youth—he is the first Conservative leader with a head of full-colour hair since Thatcher—makes the greying stalwart Brown seem old by comparison.

Certain political commentators have been quick to point it out, wondering whether it would not be better for Labour to skip a generation and the relatively dour Brown altogether.

Blair seeking to find a third way, said: “You can have the best combination, which is the experience with the youthful team in support.”

However, the question still hangs.

It applies equally to the Lib Dems, who seem set to chose in March between acting leader Menzies Campbell (64) and the 41-year-old Mark Oaten.

“I believe I am a 21st century Liberal and I am determined to lead a 21st century Liberal party,” Oaten said. - AFP

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