Politicians had to grapple with a new reality when the electorate returned a hung parliament, something not seen since 1974
It may have been only four-and-a-half weeks from when Gordon Brown called the election to polling day itself, but the former prime minister’s desperate need to hang on to power meant that the 2010 election campaign felt like the longest in living memory. As the parties postured and preened during their phony war, Building launched its Charter 284 campaign to underline the importance of construction to the economy - eliciting open letters from all three party leaders on their plans for an industry that generates £2.84 of GDP for every pound spent.
Once Brown finally fired the starter’s gun, on 6 April, the hair-pulling swiftly gave way to handbags, which were wielded with increasing ferocity by the parties. The early election campaign was dominated by Labour’s ill-received plan to raise National Insurance by 1% from April 2011, which was met with a violent backlash from Tories and business leaders alike. But business folk got their anger returned with interest when Liberal Democrat sage Vince Cable accused them of being “utterly nauseating”.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg went from zero to hero thanks to the first televised leader debates, where he achieved the not-so-difficult feat of coming over as less public school than David Cameron and less awkward than a PR-groomed Gordon Brown (remember that rictus smile?).
He also scored points for being opposed to savage cuts to public spending, stressing that “respected economists have warned that Tory plans for immediate cuts in public spending will make it even more difficult to find work”. Clegg has since found other “respected economists”.
As the Lib Dem leader’s poll ratings soared to a point where only the Eyjafjallajökull volcano gained more media attention, Brown managed to hold his own far longer than expected - until he was caught on mic calling pensioner Gillian Duffy “that bigoted woman”. He never recovered.
The love affair
The electorate quickly had to get its head around the concept of a hung parliament, having produced an outcome not seen since 1974, with Tories winning 307 seats (36.1% share of the vote), Labour 258 (29%), Lib Dems 57 (23%) and others 28 (11.9%).
So there was some emergency cosying up to be done. By now, Clegg was saying he would work with “a man from the moon” if he could secure a promise of electoral reform. Which was rather handy, given the late hours he had to spend in meetings with Cameron before the coalition deal was finally announced, five days after the election result.
Relief at an outcome swiftly turned to fear, however, as the coalition began sharpening its axe for the much-trailed assault on public spending. Contractors didn’t have to wait long before the first blow came - £6bn of spending on hold and every spending decision since Christmas put under review, just 12 days after the coalition was formed. The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) quickly followed, putting all work on hold at the end of May. The emergency Budget of 22 June was as grim as many expected, and in the end the HCA had to cut £450m of funding it had in some cases already spent. Industry nerves were set on edge when Michael Gove announced in July that he was cancelling the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme, scrapping 735 schools and academies.
By then, a clear theme had emerged, as Osborne chose largely to protect economic infrastructure spend - roads and railways - while ditching social infrastructure investment in houses, hospitals and schools. It got really bad for housing at the Comprehensive Spending Review, with a settlement of less than half its previous spend, and £7bn of regeneration money condensed to just £1.5bn. Pat Ritchie, the HCA’s new chief executive, told Building in November there was now no new money for two years.