Merry Christmas (war is over – briefly)

Well, it wasn't so bad this year. Christmas, I mean. I have quoted this bon mot of Will Self's in this column before, but it bears repetition: Christmas is the real sucking-shit-through-a-straw time for the separated man. An unpleasant image but a memorable one, I think you'll agree.

This is the third Noel that I've been absent from the family home and I am becoming acclimatised to the idea. Since the age of about 17, I haven't really been much of a Christmassy person anyway. This was hard on my mother, an American and therefore hard-wired to enter the spirit
of the occasion; but since when were the feelings of a parent considered deeply by those in their late adolescence?

I have my reasons for feeling exhausted by the season and any break from it is welcome. (You will have noticed, incidentally, that I alone of all this magazine's columnists did not mention it in last fortnight's festive issue. I'm so disorganised that I can't even get my Christmas column in on time. So you can imagine the paralysis that afflicts me when it comes to Christmas shopping.) It all starts, you see, on or around Thanksgiving, which is also mandatory (see "American" above), as is, indeed, my father's birthday, which falls on or around same day. Also around that time is the anniversary of the ex-wife's and my first date, the problem of which has since, admittedly, been resolved. For years, until the arrival of children made travel too exhausting and expensive even to think about, we would celebrate Christmas in Paris with our friend Mimi. If there is
a more civilised place to spend Yule than Paris, I'd like to hear of it. I spent almost a decade not having to hear that fucking song by Slade.

One big snag was presents. I am really good at getting them, not so good at giving them. As I'm a perfectionist and a narcissist, choosing presents for my nearest and dearest has always been a problem - they have to be just right, an expression not only of my affection but of my keen insight into their personality and desires. Failing that, a bottle of Lagavulin will do. (It's what Razors and I have been giving each other since about 1994, when we first did it to each other by pure coincidence or, perhaps, telepathy, cementing our friendship for good.) But what do you give someone who doesn't like Scotch, or can't drink it for medical reasons?

This year, it was agreed that, what with my disastrous financial situation, the best present I could give the Aged Ps was my labour, in the form of going over and cooking their Christmas goose and all the trimmings bar the stuffing. (Which I have to concede takes, if you follow my recipe, about an entire day, if you factor in buying the ingredients. It is, though, jolly tasty and pretty much foolproof.) But children will not be satisfied with that. They are satisfied, though, with pretty much anything made by Apple that is prefixed by a lower-case "i". One has to salute the cunning and rapaciousness of Steve Jobs, who can sting you for more than 200 quid for what my friend Toby accurately describes as "an iPhone with the phone taken out" that's rather more fragile than a Fabergé egg. My inspired gift to them this year was a set of professional, casino-style poker chips, which not only are satisfyingly weighty, but come in a case whose label tells us that they are not to be used by under-18s, thereby adding to their already considerable allure. One might question the probity of a man who buys poker chips for a nine-, 12- and 14-year-old, but if Alan Coren's daughter can win a £500,000 tournament then other columnists' children can do the same thing.

Which now leaves the problem of the New Year and the eldest's birthday, which comes shortly thereafter. She wanted all adults to vacate the premises from 8pm until the next morning, a prospect that freaked her mother and me out so much that we found ourselves in complete agreement for the first time since the invasion of Iraq.

I can still vividly remember what I got up to at my daughter's age, despite the amount of vodka and Cinzano I had inhaled, and have no desire for history to repeat itself as tragedy or farce. But that's the festive season for you: the same damn thing, over and over again

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide