If the core functions of government are external defence, internal law and order and the stability of currency, taxation and public expenditure as the basis for economic wellbeing, then 2013 looks like being another very shaky year for David Cameron's coalition.
From Damascus to Brussels, William Hague's foreign policy looks enfeebled, truculent police officers resist Theresa May's overdue reforms at home and George Osborne's remedies offer no convincing sign of economic recovery beyond the frantic January sales.
Who would have predicted that the new year would begin with a poisonous row still bubbling between the Metropolitan police and – of all parties – the Conservatives? A row fomented by a heavily compromised Tory media supposed to be on their best "chill factor" behaviour for Lord Justice Leveson's benefit, but actually up to familiar tricks during plebgate?
As the new year turns, the parallel with banking is striking. From Hillsborough to phone hacking, Libor-rigging to enormous fines over bogus pension insurance sales, from Sienna Miller to Andrew Mitchell, bankers, cops and media (even the smug BBC) have seen skeletons repeatedly falling out of cupboards in 2012. Are they contrite? Not very. Will they resist more robust regulation? You bet. Does society need them? Yes.
By comparison, politics starts 2013 in no worse shape than usual: as becalmed as the economy and with all to play for. The Guardian's ICM poll finds disaffected, unaligned voters putting Labour on 40% against the Tories at 32% and Liberal Democrats 13% with Ukip (the joker in Cameron's pack) on 7% and others – assorted Greens and nationalists – on 9%. It could be much worse for Cameron and Nick Clegg, better for Ed Miliband, too. With creeping economic protectionism everywhere, a weakened, divided US (the EU is even worse) and rising nationalism in Asia, anything might happen in 2013. It probably won't, but it might.
Set against the threat of deglobalisation – or worse – Britain's domestic woes would look trivial. They remain serious. The ejection of the chief whip weeks after Cameron's first unforced reshuffle since 2010 damaged his authority. Throw in the uncertain consequences of the coalition's police reforms, including 41 newly elected police commissioners across England and Wales, and the law and order front looks volatile. Britain isn't Greece, but no state in its fifth year of austerity is immune from civil disorder.
Like many of the coalition's mid-term woes, the drama is only partly self-inflicted. The eurozone's unresolved debt crisis, the faltering Asian growth machine and the reckless fiscal brinkmanship of Washington all help to make Osborne's next budget on 20 March as risky as any so far. With negative real-terms interest rates failing to revive investment or consumer confidence in a flat economy, what Plan A-minus can the chancellor conjure up to revive growth?
And can he do it without alarming flighty markets about the UK's stubborn debt and deficit or further alienating the Tories' Tea Party tendency? For yet another new year it is the big challenge as talk of a triple-dip recession persists. Britain hosting the 39th G8 summit in Enniskillen on 17-18 June raises the stakes. So do negotiations for an EU-US trade deal.
Whatever Osborne does will not satisfy Labour. But Miliband's team is neither generating enough ideas to reshape the discredited neo-liberal model, nor far enough ahead in the polls, to feel that the next election is as good as won.
At the halfway mark, Clegg is finally finding a distinctive voice that may save the Lib Dems from disaster.
The coalition will survive growing stresses and Clegg will remain party leader, though Chris Huhne roaming on the backbenches – if he is acquitted of motoring offences – will not make his job easier.
The Tories' own message is even more confusing. With one hand Cameron (and his personal stalker, Boris Johnson) joins forces with the Lib-Lab left to enrage traditional Tories by promising a vote on gay marriage in 2013, but not to repeal the hunting ban.
On the other hand, the PM indulges loose talk of a renegotiated relationship with a jittery, distracted Europe which could spiral into a risky in/out referendum. No wonder Ukip's Nigel Farage hopes for a breakthrough or that Brussels has a new word: "Brexit". Hard-pressed Eurocrats do not want Britain to leave, nor do they want Scotland to leave Britain, which would only encourage Catalan separatists.
The price of miscalculation in 2013 could be huge and in Johnson, Farage and the SNP's first minister, Alex Salmond, "Posh Boy" Cameron is beset by wily populists without a convincing narrative of his own to offset their simple panaceas. Local elections on May 2 will be a crucial test.
Yet the overarching task for politicians of all stripes in 2013 is to find the confidence to impose a new regulatory settlement on society's major stakeholders. It will be one which is neither a capitulation to finance capitalism (to Fleet St or the police, to over-mighty energy cartels, the mismanaged BBC or even a cash-strapped NHS) nor overkill that smothers entrepreneurship, initiative and effective accountability to voters or consumers.
Post-Olympic Britain will have to learn to do things better and cheaper in 2013 because the money has run out – and won't be back any time soon. And, as No 10 knows, that's the optimistic scenario.
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