2005 in retrospect

THE aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean produced the first major clash of the year between the Prime Minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown.

By Graham Dines

THE aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean produced the first major clash of the year between the Prime Minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair, who had refused to cut his Egyptian holiday short to oversee the British response to the catastrophe, timed his first news conference of January to clash directly with Mr Brown's Edinburgh speech calling for a Marshall Aid-type plan to combat poverty and debt in the Third World.

There were two major policy announcements from the Conservatives at the beginning of the year - the first detailed their plans to save billions of taxpayers' cash by axing Whitehall bureaucracy and ploughing the money into frontline services and tax cuts, while the second outlined curbs on immigration and asylum.

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Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats planned to clobber the better off through tax increases and to replace council tax with a local income tax. The Government brought forward details of a modified right to buy scheme for 300,000 local authority and housing association tenants and confirmed its affordable homes strategy along the Thames Gateway and the Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough corridor.

The phoney war from February to April before the General Election was called saw bitter clashes between the parties on health, immigration, gipsies and travellers. The Tories brought into the open the case of Margaret's Shoulder, a Warrington woman whose operation was repeatedly cancelled.

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The tragic case of two-day old Luke Day of Woodbridge, who died in Ipswich Hospital from MRSA, highlighted the growing incidence of the killer bug and just where the investment in the NHS was going.

The Conservatives gave details of plans to deal with travellers who take over land illegally develop it and Labour jumped on the Jamie Oliver bandwagon by promising to invest in school meals and to improve kitchens in primary schools across England. Oliver launched his campaign after being shocked to discover that just 37p a day was being spent on providing children with a school meal, leading to accusations of lack of quality and nutrition.

The General Election on May 5 was not the overwhelming victory Labour expected - but neither were there any significant advances for the Conservatives. It must be said that Michael Howard helicoptering around Britain calling the Prime Minister a liar did not held the Tory cause.

The Tories gained 33 seats, including Harwich and Braintree, and won more votes than Labour in England. But nationwide, there was just a marginal overall increase in support for them. It was the third election in a row that they had received just 33% of the popular vote.

The Liberal Democrats gained Cambridge, and other seats from Labour, on the back of their anti Iraq war stand, but it was a disappointing night for Charles Kennedy as a raft of Lib Dem seats fell to the Tories.

Most interesting result of the election was in the east London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, where George Galloway triumphed for his own Respect Party. Robert Kilroy-Silk, who left Labour for UKIP and then founded his own party Veritas, was humbled in the East Midlands and left his own party!

Elections also took place on May 5 to choose county councillors - the Tories in Essex tightened their grip on power, while in Suffolk, the party ousted the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition which had been in power since 1993.

Immediately after polling day, Michael Howard announced he was to resign as Tory leader, thus plunging the party into its fourth leadership contest in eight years and a very public examination of just what should be the values of a modern, progressive Conservative Party. The first candidate to declare he was in the race was the little known David Cameron, an MP for just four years.

The Queen's speech showed Labour's determination to press ahead with introducing identity cards, despite objections from civil liberties campaigners and the opposition parties. The Government took on critics in its own party by announcing bold reforms in public services.

Voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the European Constitution. The UK referendum on whether to ratify the treaty was abandoned.

But it was three days in July which were to shape the political landscape of the summer and autumn.

ON the sixth, London triumphed in the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. It will regenerate Stratford area of the city, give the capital world class sporting facilities, and bring tourism spin off to all parts of southern Britain, especially to Essex and Suffolk which has excellent rail connections to Stratford.

From ecstasy to agony in 24 hours - July 7 will be one of those days of infamy which will forever be associated with international terrorism.

Three bombs exploded on the London underground and another on the top deck of a bus in the capital, killing 56 people. Two weeks later, terrorists were thwarted in a similar type of attack and the following day, a suspect was shot dead by police marksmen at Stockwell tube station.

The horror of the outrages pushed public opinion towards the Government's position that a crackdown on terrorist suspects was needed.

The financial deterioration of the health service in Suffolk gathered a pace, with acute hospitals and primary care trusts closing beds in a desperate attempt to keep their deficits from ever growing.

Two of New Labour's iconic politicians, Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam, died in August - Cook on a Scottish mountain and Mowlam in a hospice. The Prime Minister refused to go to either funeral, deciding to remain on holiday in his “secret” location - Sir Cliff Richard's villa in Barbados.

The continuing saga of the Tory Party leadership reached a new phase when twice-loser Kenneth Clarke entered the lists, disputing that his age of 65 was a barrier to the top job. Clarke tried to play down his enthusiasm for Europe, but his critics remained unimpressed.

Liam Fox, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and David Davis followed. Michael Howard's attempt to remove the final say from party members on who should be leader backfired as the party's convention voted the reforms down.

The party conferences were dominated by the question of leadership. Charles Kennedy faced backbiting from the modernisers in his own party who believe the Lib Dems grossly underperformed at the General Election. The party's leadership were defeated on two crucial votes - the privatisation of the Royal Mail and attempts to cap the EU's budget.

The Labour conference in Brighton was a boring contest between Gordon “I want to be Prime Minister” Brown and Tony “I like being Prime Minister” Blair. Depressingly, the Manchester conference next year will be more of the same.

At least the Tories provided some interest. Their conference turned out to be a beauty parade between the contenders for Michael Howard's job. The clear winner was David Cameron, whose style of presentation and his speech knocked front runner David Davis completely off his stride.

In November, David Blunkett resigned from the Government for the second time. During the General Election campaign, the former Home Secretary had joined the Board of a DNA testing company, ignoring the ministerial code of conduct which states that ministers need clearance if they accept a post in the private sector within two years of leaving office. Appointed Work and Pensions Secretary after the election, Blunkett tried to tough it out but the smell of sleaze followed him everywhere and he quit - according to Tony Blair “without a stain on his character.”

The Government lost by 31 votes in the Commons when 49 Labour MPs rebelled against plans to increase detention without charge from 14 to 90 days. The Commons later accepted 28 days

AND so to December, and the overwhelming victory for David Cameron in the Tory leadership contest. His is a new style, more consensual, as he tries to remodel the Conservative Party just as Labour had to reinvent itself in the 1990s.

He has nearly three years to get it right. How well he progresses may be down to who he fights at the General Election. The assumption is Gordon Brown will lead Labour, but Charles Kennedy looks a goner as Liberal Democrats line up to blame him for the party's inept performance since the General Election.

No year would be complete by a row over Europe. Tony Blair caved in to demands that Britain cuts its rebate, just months after saying it was non negotiable.

In the autumn, he suggested it might be, as long as the Common Agriculture Police, so much beloved of the French, was restructured.

But French President Jacques Chirac refused to budge. So the British pick up the tab and once again, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are at loggerheads.

Nothing new there then.


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