New year brings new political scene

FOR political anoraks, there's always something flat about the year after a general election.

FOR political anoraks, there's always something flat about the year after a general election.

You know that you've got several years to wait before the next cut and thrust of a full campaign and while there may be political developments, you know that politicians won't be in too much of a panic about how the voters will perceive their actions.

So if the ruling party dips slightly in the polls, its MPs won't start running around like headless chickens.

But 2006 nationally has not had that feel at all - and there's one simple reason for that. Tony Blair had already made it clear he's in the sunset of his premiership.

And while politics has maintained its fascination nationally, locally our politicians have done their best to keep things interesting in Suffolk's council chambers.

The main interest has, as ever, focussed on events at Ipswich Borough Council.

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Two former leaders of the Conservative group, Stephen Barker and Dale Jackson, started the year by finding that the experience of being in power - rather than opposition - was altogether too much for them.

They therefore split from their colleagues, formed a separate council group, and proved to be a real thorn in the side of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat administration in the run-up to May's elections.

During their generation in opposition at Civic Centre, the Conservatives never allowed the political beliefs they had in common to get in the way of good old personality clashes - and it did seem as if old habits died hard for some members.

The administration lost its majority, and the normal functioning of the borough almost ground to a halt until the May elections resulted in a clear majority for the coalition.

Those elections finally produced a clear result - with the coalition being able to form an administration without having to worry about ensuring that every councillor turned up to every meeting.

The other major issue for Ipswich Council over the last year was the move from Civic Centre into the Town Hall and Grafton House.

The moves happened several months later than first hoped - as is often the case with major building projects - but when they happened seemed to go smoothly enough.

Which is more than could be said about the borough's new Pericles computer system installed to deal with benefit claims. Claimants found their benefits were not being paid. Landlords were threatening eviction, and there was serious concern about the impact on many families.

Council work over the last year has been dominated by the issue of finance - the Conservative-run county council in particular felt it was harshly treated by the government when grants were allocated.

This has led to big cuts in many areas of council activity - especially in social care which has prompted a great deal of concern.

Finance seems certain to be the dominant issue for local authorities as we head into 2007 - more cuts are on the cards in county council services and the borough is losing several posts in a reshuffle of senior management.

Nationally the year was dominated by the prolonged departure of Tony Blair from 10 Downing Street.

Officially he has always said merely that he would not seek a fourth term as prime minister at the next general election - but ever since last year's general election it has been clear that he would leave office long before that.

During the run-up to party conferences in the early autumn, he really did start to look like dead man walking - and even normally-loyal Labour MPs like Chris Mole were calling on him to name a date for his departure.

At that time I couldn't see Mr Blair surviving in power until Christmas - but in the event chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown called a truce and it now seems unlikely that he will face a serious challenge for the top job when Mr Blair does stand down, probably around May.

At the end of this year, the government finds itself trailing the Tories significantly in opinion polls and increasing numbers of people now see David Cameron, and not Gordon Brown or any other possible Labour leaders as the natural successor to Mr Blair.

However as we look into the future, I certainly shan't be putting my mortgage on a Conservative victory in 2009 or - more likely - 2010.

I can remember Labour surging ahead of the Conservative government in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I can remember Neil Kinnock's triumphant rally performance in Sheffield in 1992.

And I can remember what happened in the general election that year when voters finally decided to opt for the devil they knew rather than the devil they didn't.

While the nation is undoubtedly fed up with Mr Blair, with a war it doesn't like, questions about money for honours, and the state of the health service, I'm not convinced enough people are yet ready to give the Conservatives another chance.

But one thing's for certain - we won't find out for several more years.

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