Cosmetic reshuffles can’t hide the yawning chasm where a plan for government should be

Neither Cameron nor Miliband seems serious about finding reasons why anyone with an existing inclination to one side should actually consider switching to the other.

The Prime Minister could declare war and no one would notice – goes an old Westminster joke, usually attributed to Tony Blair – as long as the announcement is contained in a speech entitled “Rising to the Skills Challenge”.

The point is not that Blair was an obsessive militarist (although his critics say he was). It is that worthy but vital things the government does go unreported. The Westminster news juggernaut doesn’t brake for policies that outrage no one. Journalists won’t read a speech about the skills challenge unless they are briefed by a reliable source that it contains a declaration of war.

Politicians complain about the lack of attention paid to policy while feeding the cult of personality. The recent front-bench reshuffles illustrate the point. Downing Street let it be known that personnel changes were being made to boost the number of women and MPs with northern accents speaking on behalf of the Conservative Party. Their elevation served a cosmetic function, rebutting the view of the Tories as a club for southern men.

If that looks like a denigration of the other talents candidates for ministerial office might possess, it is. They certainly aren’t there to make policy. Independent thought is seen in Downing Street as a kind of nervous tic – best ignored since it cannot be helped, while criticism only causes offence. David Cameron has got better at pretending to listen to his MPs but in reality he sets the Tory agenda almost exclusively in consultation with George Osborne and Lynton Crosby, the party’s election strategist. The value of a policy is measured by its utility as a weapon against the opposition. Does it neutralise an Ed Miliband attack or trap him on the wrong side of public opinion? No 10 aides boast that campaign strategy and policymaking are now inseparable.

In that context, the job of MPs and ministers is to receive and repeat the message: Conservatives are fixing the economy for the benefit of hard-working people, whom Labour betrays with mass immigration, welfare profligacy and debt. Most Tories submit to this regime because they like the punchy tone and because it makes a change from the pre-Crosby routine of rolling incompetence punctuated with civil war.

Only a handful of dissidents worry about the stultifying effect of monolithic messaging between now and the election. Crosbyism is not conducive to responsible government in the long or even medium term. It is a system for spiking Nigel Farage’s guns and fomenting fear of Labour in order, they hope, to scrape over the electoral finish line in 2015.

There is a parallel problem on the opposition side. Ed Miliband insists that his “one nation” vision is an agenda for social and economic transformation on an epic scale. His shadow cabinet reshuffle was meant to raise the profile of MPs who were elected in 2010, and so clean of contamination by the old clan fighting between “Blairites” and “Brownites”. The impulse to prove that those rivalries are obsolete is sound. The danger is that the price for doing so is burial of policy questions that Miliband deems divisive. At the top of that list is discussion of how, in practical terms, Labour would run big-spending departments without big spending.

Ed Balls has committed the party to Budget discipline. That doesn’t answer the question of what the state could be doing better, or not at all. Labour insiders say it is hard to pin Miliband down on that topic even in private conversations. His advisers insist that a “one nation” story will be told about fixing broken government as well as intervening in broken markets; just not yet. For the time being, public-sector reform is treated as a lower-tier issue; an obsession for the kind of people who read speeches about “rising to the skills challenge”.

But Miliband needs more than paper pledges of fiscal rectitude. People vote Labour when they don’t trust the Conservatives to look after schools and hospitals or to provide a social safety net. Many are less minded to vote Labour now because they accept the claims that there isn’t any money for schools, hospitals or social security and that the more pressing task is national belt-tightening. For that, they turn to the Tories. Miliband cannot separate the question of responsible budgeting from innovation in public services because being serious about one demands seriousness about the other.

The temptation is to gloss over that challenge. In the past few weeks, Miliband’s stock has risen. His pledge to cap energy prices proved that popularity is not the same as free-market orthodoxy. His battle with the Daily Mail over poisonous allegations about his late father proved that popularity is not the same as conservative reaction.

Those achievements may bring floating voters to look at Miliband afresh but their likeliest impact will be in giving Labour-leaning people new reasons to vote Labour. That is better than giving them reasons to sit at home or vote Liberal Democrat. In much the same way, Crosby’s aggressive message discipline will succeed largely in persuading Tory-leaning people to vote Tory, which, from Cameron’s point of view, is an improvement on watching them vote Ukip.

Still, neither Cameron nor Miliband seems serious about finding reasons why anyone with an existing inclination to one side should actually consider switching to the other. They claim to talk about the future while their opponent is wedded to the past but the future they have in mind is a campaigning construct – a sun-drenched Never-Never Land of balanced budgets, gleaming hospitals, well-policed borders, higher wages, lower bills, new homes, fairer taxes. And the real future, which begins the day one of them flops into Downing Street with a flimsy mandate and a manifesto full of show policies that were crafted to destabilise the enemy party or appease an unappeasable fringe? On that future there is silence.

Ed Miliband signs autographs as he attends the Pride of Britain awards at Grosvenor House on October 7, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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