Sunshine now, clouds later

In London this morning, something’s definitely changed. One can feel it in the air. For the first time in weeks, the sky is bright blue beneath the softest veil of clouds and the sun is shining fearlessly, while the slightly damp air is warm enough, just, to presage the onset of our much-delayed spring.

The peaceful transfer of political power is, I suppose, so basically counterintuitive as to drive any susceptible observer, from time to time, into the arms of the pathetic fallacy. Why is it, though, that the weather on the day of any significant British election result is always beautiful? So incandescently bright and sunny, for instance, was the morning of New Labour’s apotheosis on 2 May 1997 — a sort of public holiday declared by Nature herself, apparently, to mark the long-awaited climacteric — that even Alastair Campbell, not given to gratuitous scene-setting, fought free of his own self-imposed rhetorical mode long enough to confess to his diary that this was ‘another lovely sunny day’, as indeed it was. For the losers, on the other hand, for the Tories as we wandered through that magnificent morning, bewildered and outraged and heartbroken, the sunshine only added to the air of disorientation. ‘It was not a thing done in a corner,’ the regicides said of the judicial murder of Charles I; in 1997, it was as if the consummation of New Labour’s various ambitions, more and less obvious, could only take place in very bright daylight indeed.

‘Worst Labour result for 40 years’ screamed the Evening Standard‘s headlines yesterday. Today, on the Saturday of a bank holiday, Friday’s advertising boards promise to perpetuate the message for at least three days more. Everyone who cares, in any event, knows the news by now: that in Thursday’s local elections, 44 per cent of the vote went to ‘Cameron’s Conservatives’, 25 per cent to the LibDems, and only 24 per cent to the Labour Party, which nonetheless continues to govern the country, its spokesmen and women exploring the limits of the words ‘disappointing’, ‘lessons’ and ‘listening’, their faces more stricken with each passing interview. Further, in the London mayoral election the Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson, deprived the Labour incumbent, Ken Livingstone, of a third term in office, by margin of something like 53 to 47 per cent. At the beginning of the campaign such a result was probably literally unthinkable, but by the time it was announced last night, it must have rung in Labour ears like the all-too-obvious punchline of some deeply bitter, not exactly amusing joke.

‘Worst Labour result for 40 years’ — is there a warm-blooded Tory in the world whose heart wouldn’t beat faster, at least just a little, hearing these words at the start of the Today programme? Whose feet wouldn’t trip a bit more lightly, as if slightly giddy with the long-denied stuff of optimism and victory? Is there — not that this does us any credit at all, but one might as well be honest about these things — a Tory out there who didn’t stop to think how ‘they’ must be feeling today: Polly Toynbee, Jon Snow, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the trade unionists who balk at military recruitment in schools, the suburban socialists who order their vegetable boxes from Abel & Cole while denouncing the evils of the market, the Comment Is Free contributors already laying aside a stock of budget booze with which to toast Lady Thatcher’s eventual translation to a better place — in short, that tribe against which our own dysfunctional, often aimless, perpetually troubled tribe persistently defines itself, even at those moments when we can scarcely agree on anything else?

One might as well be honest about these things. Cheap fun doesn’t last as long as the dearer sort. It’s far more fragile. Back in 1997, when Labour swept to power on an unimaginably engorged majority, it seemed clear to me that what we, the Tories, were experiencing was nothing short of absolute desolation. People literally wept about it. Eleven years on, though, it’s hard to deny that there was a sort of sly masochistic thrill to be had, not that we realised it consciously at the time, in the sheer extent of our collapse, the spectacle of our own abject powerlessness, the realisation that so much in life was now quite simply someone else’s problem. And so looking at Friday’s election results, the mixed feelings are even more explicit. True, the sight of Hazel Blears or Yvette Cooper standing out on College Green, apologising to anyone who’d listen for the their party’s recent failings, brought a smile to my face. Beating Labour is good. But whenever David Cameron, George Osborne or Boris Johnson appeared on screen, I found an excuse to leave the room and think of something else. My sense of participation in some tribal Tory triumph was, it turned out, a delicate thing, requiring protection from the chill wind of too much reality.

It would be unbecoming, putting it mildly, to deny the Cameroons their victory. For one thing, electoral victory matters more to Cameroons than anything else, including the terms on which they achieve it or what they do with it once they get it, so one might as well congratulate them at those moments on which their single-mindedness does, at least, seem to pay off. Further, the sort of critic who might wish to argue, with whatever admixture of irony, that Friday’s results had more to do with the impossibility of making New Labour look persuasive in the absence of the original cast than with any imagined Tory appeal, might as well leave the smarter sort of LibDem to do the hard work instead.

Yet there’s no denying David Cameron’s near-miraculous ability to make the political party of which I’ve been a member for twenty years, for which I’ve worked both voluntarily and in a paid capacity, in which both my friendships and antipathies run deeper than anywhere else, feel suddenly like a question of ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. This gift, in part, resides in Cameron’s approving use of words like ‘change’ and ‘modern’, his assumed enthusiasm for ‘the environment’ in all its more modish aspects, his failure to attack the welfare state per se rather than simply its apparently infinite baleful manifestations, his nervous enthusiasm for matching Labour’s spending pledges, his inability to realise that the media are only the effective opposition because no one really challenges them, his cowardly failure to stand by colleagues like Patrick Mercer MP, his tendency to encourage pointless self-hatred on the part of the most successful political party in European history, and his naked contempt for the mostly decent, hard-working, principled, sane and self-effacing bunch whom he affects not simply to manipulate and ridicule, but also to lead.

Nor do I feel much more sanguine about the man who is now, apparently, the second-most influential Conservative in Britain. Having somehow achieved power over what is, arguably, the greatest city on earth, Johnson must now deploy it. And yet portents for the future are hardly — from a Conservative standpoint anyway — encouraging. There’s a basic lesson, called ‘The Law of Portillo’, which London’s voters appear to have forgotten. Now that it’s too late to matter, let me remind them. It runs like this: being classed as a relatively clever human being, a passably competent television presenter and a ‘colourful’ personality does not, repeat, not, equate with being a successful politician.

And indeed, Johnson’s track-record of achievement isn’t exactly over-furnished with successes. He tends to make messes of things, leaving someone else to clean up the damage. His editorship of the Spectator, for instance, saw the ever-accelerating declension of an influential conservative journal into an attention-seeking yet persistently fluffy and frivolous lifestyle magazine. His time as an MP has been more notable for media-assisted distractions than for obvious public service. His first foray into shadow-ministerial office saw him sacked for lying about an extra-marital liaison, rather as his first job in journalism had seen him sacked for manufacturing a quotation. And although it has become desperately unfashionable these days to profess any sort of interest whatsoever in what is termed a ‘politician’s private life’ — the boundaries here being both broad and infinitely flexible — there’s a hint of irredeemable squalour lingering about a man who does not deny that he has risked his relationship with his wife and children through a series of extra-marital affairs, or that he colluded with a convicted fraudster in a plot to have News of the World journalist Stuart Collier’s legs broken. Having spent the entire election claiming that he’d give up his parliamentary seat if elected mayor, on the day of the actual election, he suddenly announced that he’d do no such thing. Perhaps, of course, Johnson will suddenly clean up his act and get down to work. Until that happens, however, one is left once again with the impression of an arrogant chancer who believes that rules are for little people, and who doesn’t really care how much collateral damage takes place along the way. And although most of the time I’ll happily accept the label ‘Thatcherite’, whether uttered as praise or swear-word, I don’t recognise anything of my beloved Conservative Party in any of that.

In the past 24 hours, by way of distraction, I’ve occasionally found myself wondering what Tony Blair, or for that matter Alistair Campbell, makes of the election results. On one level they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t enjoy the odd shiver of schadenfreude — so, it turns out that achieving three size XL parliamentary majorities in a row, keeping the economy vaguely on track and the party vaguely united, wasn’t all that easy, does it? Well, who knew? But on the other hand — those tribal loyalties catch us even when we least expect it, perhaps most of all when we don’t expect it. For what it’s worth, I imagine that for Blair and Campbell, along with the schadenfreude and the unfamiliarity of relative disengagement, there was a stab of grief at ‘Worst Labour result for 40 years’, at least as authentic and visceral as my own Tory surge of partisan good cheer.

The Labour Party is, now, I guess, launched off along a path dictated for it by the inevitable laws of literary tragedy. ‘Every farthing of the cost / shall be paid …’ and all that. One does not envy them the journey. No Conservative of my generation, at any rate, needs instruction in the banal nastiness of party in-fighting, in the unwholesome intoxications of attempted leaderships coups or leadership elections, in scratching open once again the bleeding sore that the democratic equivalent of regicide leaves at the heart of a once-invincible political party, poisoning everything until first paralysis, then necrosis sets in. Oh, there’s fun to be had in all of that, but it’s a dark sort of fun. Unlike election victories, it doesn’t provoke the heavens into bursts of sunshine, or skies as clear as a blameless conscience.

At the same time, though, one perhaps envies even less the course that opens out before the Conservative Party, in the compulsive willingness of its leadership to make any kind of accommodation that might plausibly bring them marginally closer to the power they crave without really knowing why they crave it, or what they would do if they achieved it.

Something’s changed in Britain this morning. One can feel it in the air. Spring has come. It’s time to bed out annuals, to make plans to go to the seaside, to consider the merits of cold salads, sandals and long evenings. And it’s time to rejoice in the sudden change in the political weather that’s delivered, for the first time in a long time, Labour defeat conjoined with Conservative victory. One senses, however, that despite all that, there are storm clouds somewhere ahead.

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8 Comments

Filed under London, politics, Tory things

8 responses to “Sunshine now, clouds later

  1. JL

    I heard the news last night and had been wondering since whether to offer congratulations or condolences. The answer, I suppose, is both.

    (I haven’t forgotten your reply on the Batoni post below, and hope to have more thoughts soon. I’ve gotten caught up, however, in one or two things, the 1982 catalog among them. It’s small, but illuminating.)

  2. fugitive ink

    Congratulations are in order, if only on the arrival of spring, for which we’ve been waiting long enough. Actually, in the best classical tradition I may just retreat from politics in order to spend more time with my bedding plants:

    Fortunatus et ille, deos qui novit agrestis,
    panaque Silvanumque senem Nymphasque sorores:
    illum non populi fasces, non purpura regum
    flexit et infidos agitans discordia fratres
    aut coniurato descendens Dacus ab Histro,
    non res Romanae perituraque regna; neque ille
    aut doluit miserans inopem aut invidit habenti
    quos rami fructus, quos ipsa volentia rura
    sponte tulere sua, carpsit; nec ferrea iura
    insanumque forum aut populi tabularia vidit.

    And already, after just one day, one of my petunias is almost in flower. What can democracy offer to stand comparison with that? (I’m still looking forward to that Batoni comment, though.)

  3. John

    Firstly, I hardly think one could regard Mercer to be a colleague of David Cameron, an associate that one works with, he was more of a subordinate that
    betrayed the very principles of the Tory party.

    Some of his party cannot grasp either the reasons of principle or the imperatives of politics that meant Patrick Mercer had to be removed from the Tory front bench. David Cameron gets it but some in his party still don’t get it at all and it looks like you are one of them.

    The Mercer affair showed that “the heart and soul of the Conservative party still hold unpleasant views”. The comments made by Patrick Mercer were completely unacceptable and perhaps untrue.

    Mercer said: “I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours”, later he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that in his 25-year military career he had only twice come across soldiers claiming racism when disciplined for poor performance which is not “a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless”

    Shadow trade and industry secretary Alan Duncan told BBC Question Time: “He [Mr Mercer] appeared to be indifferent to the fact that someone was taunted for being black”, Mercer was a Conservative spokesman, a portfolio which surely calls for someone with racial sensitivity furthermore the Mercer episode would have gone very badly for the Cameron party had he not acted quickly. It was never a question of cowardly failure to stand by Mercer a man perceived to be void of loyalty by Tory grassroots of his own constituency.

    Mercer said when he joined the army the atmosphere in which recruits were trained was in many ways utterly unacceptable nevertheless “nothing was said about this, it wasn’t challenged, it was taken on the chin because that’s what made you a man”.

    Perhaps, racially insensitive remarks are also something he believes should be taken on the chin.

    To my mind he always was and always will be an Armed Forces Member of Parliament. Give them more boots and bayonets and medals for their chest, to be in a prestigious fighting unit is the business etc etc etc And to hell with loyalty and the needs of the Tory party.

  4. fugitive ink

    Thanks for your comment, John, although you do seem remarkably full of complaints, and I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on rather a lot.

    First, it’s simply a matter of convention to refer to members of parliament, especially those who sit on the same side of the House, as ‘colleagues’, a word which after all only means that they occupy the same profession and has no implications whatsoever regarding seniority or status. Ten out of ten competent UK political editors would, I suspect, agree with me on this admittedly not very fascinating issue.

    Let’s move on, though, to your more interesting set of points regarding Patrick Mercer. Aside from anything else, your comment is an elegant illustration of the extent to which divisions exist within our great party, even on matters as profound as hierarchies of loyalty.

    Since my original post had very little to do with the rights and wrongs of Mr Mercer’s Times interview, I’ll refrain from attempting to re-fight that battle, except in noting that as far as I can see, Mr Mercer did nothing except to spell out, in reasonably forthright language, the fact that not everyone in the armed services is invariably politically correct absolutely all the time, and that most recruits find it perfectly possible to take this in their stride. (If you read any military memoirs, or in fact spend any time here, it’s hard to argue with his conclusions.)

    The reason I mentioned Mr Mercer in the first place, though, was to make the point that I’d have respected David Cameron a lot more if, the moment anyone in the press twisted the facts of an interview, stirred up a momentary flurry of interest on a dull news day, and used the magic word ‘racism’, Mr Cameron hadn’t caved in completely. A bit more ‘publish and be damned’ might not have gone amiss. But then Mr Cameron is a PR man by profession, which perhaps explains why he is so easily swayed by the apparent imperatives of PR. And who knows, maybe he’s got a point — which brings us back to my initial post. Caving in to the media may well win elections. The way Mr Cameron treated Mr Mercer may engender enormous confidence in Mr Cameron’s iron-solid steadfastness in the eyes of his parliamentary colleagues — or his boot-licking lackeys, or whatever you’d prefer me to call the rest of the parliamentary party.

    In any event, it’s pretty clear where the difference between us lies. All I can say is that in his voting record, his speeches and his actions, Mr Mercer really does exemplify much of what I mean when I say I’m a Tory. Yet you question Mr Mercer’s ‘loyalty’ (evidently regarding loyalty to today’s leadership of the Conservative Party as the highest possible end), find him wanting, and imply that because he often speaks from an accumulation of real and relevant experience, on issues of enormous practical significance at the moment, he somehow represents the armed forces rather than your sense of Conservatism and what it should do in practice.

    Anyone mad enough to still be following this will have by now discerned two fairly clear strands of political thinking, cohabiting uncomfortably within a single party, and may indeed have wondered at the extremity of their divergence. As I suggested above, we’ll have to agree to disagree — and may Alan Duncan prove as reliably satisfactory an exponent of your views within the party as Mr Mercer has been of mine.

  5. John

    I’m afraid that all that you have said is sophism and a disdainful rebuttal of the truth about a man unworthy of your esteem.

    The connotation of “cowardly failure to stand by colleagues”,was one of a group of people who work together, entirely so from my perspective.

    So, you believe that Army recruits of other races find it perfectly possible to take abusive unfair treatment in their stride and like Mercer perhaps think they should take it on the chin because that is what makes them a man. Also nobody “twisted the facts” of the Patrick Mercer interview it was reported the way Mr Mercer said it without any condemnation of the abuse and with complete indifference to the way it was in his Army days.

    For David Cameron, it was never a case of “caving in to the media may well win elections”, it was always about morality and the unacceptable indifferent comments of a man apparently unfit to be a Tory spokesman.

    What derogatory names you prefer to call the rest of your parliamentary party is a matter of complete indifference to me but to my mind and perhaps that of angry Tory grassroots Patrick Mercer is a smarmy lickspittle rapscallion with political aspirations that reside in militarism.

    Furthermore, I doubt there will be a huge portrait of Mercer for the Newark town hall as a cenotaph to his work, moreover his lack of high principles and crass comments relating to the massacre of 16 primary school children and their teacher in Dunblane beggared belief but then it was alleged that he was a FRU operative while serving in the Army in Northern Ireland. He is on the record as hailing the dirty war as a successful campaign of “killing people if necessary and deterring people because it has to be done.”, he admitted only that he had a lot to do with the FRU allegedly involved in collusion and murder.

    You say his speeches and his actions, exemplify much of what you mean when you say you’re a Tory (evil V good) so we do indeed have to agree to disagree and you can fulminate as much as you please; even if you vituperate, I will not change my mind about Mercer, someone that I regard to be a lying traitorous snollygoster beyond that I wish you a very good day and agree to disagree about an exponent of your views.

  6. fugitive ink

    Erm, well, once again thanks for all that, John. I think we’ve now established to everyone’s satisfaction that we don’t agree about Mr Mercer’s qualities, and that we’re unlikely to do so any time soon. Doubtless the many readers who have been fascinated by this exchange will make up their own minds. But yes, I wish you a very good day, too. Let’s all go out and enjoy that rare thing, a sunny bank holiday Monday.

  7. Would Fugitive Ink take pity on me and provide a translation for that Latin stanza?

    Oh, and Artblog.net is overjoyed to see FI’s author back in action.

  8. fugitive ink

    For you, Franklin, anything (more or less):

    Blest too is he who knows the rural gods,
    Pan, old Silvanus, and the sister-nymphs!
    Him nor the rods of public power can bend,
    Nor kingly purple, nor fierce feud that drives
    Brother to turn on brother, nor descent
    Of Dacian from the Danube’s leagued flood,
    Nor Rome’s great State, nor kingdoms like to die;
    Nor hath he grieved through pitying of the poor,
    Nor envied him that hath. What fruit the boughs,
    And what the fields, of their own bounteous will
    Have borne, he gathers; nor iron rule of laws,
    Nor maddened Forum have his eyes beheld,
    Nor archives of the people.

    (Virgil, Georgics, Book II – full translation available here.)

    Meanwhile, heartfelt thanks for the kind words.