Undaunted by my mediocre predictions for 2011, I am nevertheless going to have a bash at predicting what's coming up in the year ahead. This is particularly foolish given my long-held belief that the future is unwritten, but it's always useful to have something to test my expectations against.
Looking forward by looking back
In order to understand where we are going, it's first important to understand where we're coming from. 2011 has in many ways been a remarkably static year in political terms. All three parties are more or less where they were at the beginning of the year – the Conservatives may have put on a bit of support in the last few weeks, but it remains to be seen how permanent that is.
This is astonishing, given the amount of political turbulence. We have had a very ropey year for the economy, public sector strikes, riots, widespread anger at the revealed behaviour of the press, a crisis in the Eurozone that looms ever closer and a bona fide Euro-hissy fit. Yet the political barometer has barely moved, no matter how hard it has been hit.
So the first big question to ask is why public opinion is so static. And here we come into a whole load of negatives:
1. The public doesn't approve of the Coalition. It routinely gets -20 or worse on the YouGov surveys.
2. The public doesn't much like David Cameron. He has negative approval ratings with both MORI and YouGov. (But Conservatives adore him)
3. The public really doesn't like Nick Clegg. His approval ratings are so far below water that he is exploring territory that previously had been reserved for Jacques Cousteau.
4. The public doesn't rate Ed Miliband either. There is a big discrepancy between MORI and YouGov in his ratings, but both are negative (MORI is merely poor, while YouGov finds him to be very poor). In a survey commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, the word most frequently associated with him was "weird".
5. The public doesn't like the EU. Surveys show that more people want to leave the EU than remain in it. David Cameron's refusal to sign up to the latest EU treaty was enthusiastically received across the political spectrum.
6. In fact, it's very hard to find anyone or anything at all that the public approves of right now.
The net effect of all of this, when no one commands public support, seems to be that the public are following Newton's First Law of Motion, proceeding in a straight line with no outside force operating on them.
If this is correct, then we should not expect events by themselves to make much difference until sections of the public are persuaded from their current default settings by the analysis of those events put forward by one or more public figures.
The Grid for 2012
When working out what might come next, we have to think about what is likely to come up. There are five predictable events of significance, two economic, two cultural, one international.
1. The Eurozone crisis will be resolved, one way or another
But like the film Seven, this isn't going to have a happy ending. Even on a best case outcome, we are probably in for economic disruption. On a worst case outcome, we are in for an appalling time. Worryingly, the worst case outcome is not a remote possibility.
2. The UK economy in 2012 will continue to languish
It looks reasonably likely that we shall have another recession in 2012. The parties will put their competing interpretations on the poor economic performance. Meanwhile, the public will continue to feel morose as they continue to tighten their belts.
3. The Queen will enjoy her Diamond Jubilee
There will be a lot of retrospectives about the last 60 years. The public will wallow in nostalgia and monarchism. It should be a good year for the forces of conservatism.
4. The summer will be dominated by the Olympics
All the signs are that the Olympics should be a success. The construction works have been remarkably trouble-free to date. You can guarantee that there will be some crisis, scandal or media storm about them, though. An obvious flashpoint will be the transport in London during the games.
5. The US election will be on the news all year
The US election looks to be even more of a circus than usual this time around. The Republican nomination race is frankly embarrassing and will be reported as a freak show. This will have an impact on how the public see the economic and political debate here. It may even make the public feel a little more warmly disposed towards our own selection of politicians.
That's the easy part over and done with. Now the harder part, what am I going to predict?
Boris will probably win the Mayoral election, but it will be a lot tighter than is currently assumed
Today, you can back Boris on Betfair at 1.37 (4/11). This is far too short. There has to be at least an 11/4 chance that Boris Johnson gets embroiled in some major brouhaha in the next five months, given his remarkably chequered past.
This is a two horse race. The other serious runner, Ken Livingstone, is a two term Mayor with a formidable political machine, a continuing appetite and a flair for eye-catching election promises. He has a lot of baggage, but he has been written off far too soon. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson seems to be reacting to Ken Livingstone's campaign rather than fighting a positive campaign of his own.
Boris will probably still win because he can transcend party boundaries. But at a time when Labour is polling far better than it did in 2008 when this battle was last fought, it is not a done deal by any means.
Polling this time next year won't be far off what it is now
The public seems to have formed settled views of the respective merits of the three main parties. In the absence of anything persuading them to take a fresh look, they probably won't change their opinions.
The Conservatives' poll numbers might move if David Cameron brings back peace with honour from the EU as part of the settlement of the Eurozone crisis. The direction of movement depends on whether the peace with honour is seen in the same light as Disraeli after the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 (when we came home with Cyprus) or as Chamberlain after the Munich Accord. David Cameron will not be helped by the utterly unrealistic expectations of the right of his party. On balance, I expect that the Conservatives will stay roughly where they are now.
The economy, though grim, is probably not going to change many people's votes either way. Those who wish to believe that it is the fault of the coalition's policies will carry on believing that and those who wish to believe that it is the fault of the Eurozone crisis will carry on believing that. Those who don't know will continue not to know.
From a narrow partisan viewpoint, the coalition parties may actually do better if there is a disorderly break-up of the Eurozone. Any economic fall-out will swamp the mistakes that could be laid at their door. From a national viewpoint, it would be a complete disaster.
Labour's poll numbers will move in an inverse relationship with the Conservatives'. The public seem fairly settled in their opinion of the leading Labour figures and they don't have control of events to make the political weather. However, Labour should do well in the local elections in May, now that they seem to have belatedly realised that they need to take on the Conservatives (rather than the SNP and the Lib Dems) if they are going to make progress.
It's hard to see what the Lib Dems can do to pick themselves back up off the canvass. They'll have to take Churchill's advice and keep buggering on.
Politicians will mostly stay put
This should be an excellent year to bet against senior politicians leaving their jobs. While all three party leaders have negative ratings, it would suit no Lib Dem for Nick Clegg to stand down next year, David Cameron is hugely popular with his party faithful and Ed Miliband will do well enough in the polls to keep the wolves from the door. It will be a year to bet on things not happening rather than on them happening.
This will also generally hold good at Cabinet level, but for different reasons. Because the Cabinet is an explicitly brokered coalition, Lib Dem Cabinet members will only go for the most egregious reasons (and even then, only maybe). And because Lib Dems won't lightly resign, neither will Conservatives. The next departures from the Cabinet will probably be at a reshuffle in June/July. Bets on next Cabinet departures should be set accordingly - who is the most dispensible? Caroline Spelman and Michael Moore spring to mind. Kenneth Clarke might also choose to take the next reshuffle as a time to retire. Lord Strathclyde at 33/1 might be worth thinking about too, because he is politically dispensible, should David Cameron need to dispense with him. It might be convenient to have a Lib Dem leader of the Lords, for example.
I for one am hoping that we are going to see more markets speculating on John Bercow's departure. To be clear, he will stay put, but it would be lovely to have some more ways of making interest-free high yield returns.
The minor parties will continue to miss trick after trick...
The current political mood is as toxic to mainstream politicians as I can recall. But no minor party is taking advantage of this. The Greens are invisible, UKIP are offensively graceless and the BNP are collapsing in internal recriminations. There is a glittering opportunity for the minor parties, but none of them show any signs of having any leadership capable of taking it.
... except for the SNP
Alex Salmond is very successfully positioning himself both as head of a Scottish government and as a leading internal opponent to the coalition. It's a nice trick if you can pull it off, and it seems as though he can. He is aided enormously by the dismal quality of all his local opponents.
However, he has concerns of his own. While he can retain power easily enough, the political climate has never been less promising for Scottish independence. "Independence in Europe" is not an easy message to sell when the Eurozone is circling the plughole, and leaving what at present looks like a relatively safe haven in the UK is going to be an equally tough sell. Yet he has no excuses not to hold a referendum at some point in this Parliament. No doubt we will eventually get a referendum (though not next year). But I would not bet on it passing without a very dramatic change in the political weather.