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.