David Cameron speaking from the Olympic Velodrome on 7 February. Photograph: Getty Images.
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David Cameron takes a leaf out of Salmond's book and speaks to the heart, not the head

Britain's muted but certain recovery is bad news for Alex Salmond. David Cameron seems to have learned from the Scottish First Minister, appealing to the heart, not the head.

“Good morning. My name is Jackie and I am from Legacy here at the Olympic Park...” This was probably a well-worn joke, accessible to those who liked the spoof Olympic sitcom 2012 and that sort of thing, but Jackie couldn’t have done more to lighten the mood as she conjured up in our minds a speech by the lady from Sustainability, and an extended coach ride that took us from Stratford International station to the Olympic Park, via Wembley Stadium.

Disturbingly, it was true. She was from Legacy, and she began to explain the regeneration programme. Happily, it created enough of a distraction to allow for initial conversations. I introduced myself to the lady sitting next to me, called Olga it turned out, who informed me she was the CEO of a medical imaging firm. “Why are you here?” I asked. “I do not know,” she replied in a faintly Eastern European accent. “Why are you here?” she retorted. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. After this verbal mirroring finished we determined to stick together in case everyone else knew why they were there.

We needn’t have. Even Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Dame Tessa Jowell looked slightly wide-eyed at their inclusion (understandably in Tessa’s case – she had had to endure the ranting of the historian David Starkey the night before as a fellow panelist on Question Time), despite the fact that they had more right than others to be at the venue, but weren’t necessarily connected to what was about to be said.

In a sense, I had a connection with the content (namely a couple of articles I’ve written for the New Statesman website on the subject, with the predictable quotidian abuse for doing so) but not the venue. In PR terms maybe we were, collectively, engaged in a piece of cosmic cancellation that rendered the audience almost entirely neutral.

I had already heard at 6:30am on Radio 4 “that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be saying later today at the Olympic Velodrome that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be emailing, texting and telling their Scottish friends to vote to stay in the Union on 18th September...” so I was simultaneously miffed and relaxed about being bussed in as a member of a well-dressed group of extras. To my surprise, Olga, an expert in image analysis, hadn’t clocked that we should be more interested in analysing the image, rather than the content.

Because, as it turned out, and for no other reason than coincidence, the Prime Minister did attempt something that I had urged in a recent New Statesman article – to avoid the technical arguments on Scottish independence, and appeal to the emotions. The “Better Together” campaign appeals (like its spokesman, Alistair Darling) to the mind, while Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP – who doesn’t have the fig leaf of a thought-through policy or a contingency plan to cover his political ambitions – appeals to the heart.

David Cameron’s intervention was specifically designed to redress that balance. And it was a lesson in public speech-making; admittedly sometimes too insistent, sometimes a little too red-faced in delivery, sometimes a little too anecdotal and sometimes veering towards making the case for independence (the list of Scottish cultural and business successes was impressive), but always, and this is something that really cannot be doubted, an enunciation of a personal desire to see the union stay together because he genuinely believes only chaos and diminution lie ahead should Scotland vote “Yes” to independence.

Salmond’s response was unsurprisingly aggressive – he even contrived to use the phrase I predicted for him when he said “game on” during an interview on the BBC One O’Clock News. With Salmond, it really is like waiving a stick in front of a dog when it comes to the points of view of others, especially if you are English, a Prime Minister and called David Cameron. Each and every piece of opposition has to be stamped upon as though he and the SNP are creating an informational version of a Celtic North Korea. But he failed to land a killer blow, even missing the obvious “on yer bike” line for choosing the velodrome as the venue for the speech.

The economic situation of the UK is unlikely to help Salmond in the coming months; there is little to knock the UK off course from its muted recovery, with signs that a new credit cycle is starting while unemployment is falling, and demand for graduates is increasing. These are all things that lead people to desire to maintain the status quo. And since few people know about – or are sufficiently interested in – the niceties of sovereign credit ratings, single currencies or the need for new over-arching institutions to police an independent Scotland, Cameron’s appeal to the heart is a welcome addition to the technocratic angle. It couldn’t have come out any clearer if you’d passed the whole thing through one of Olga’s award-winning image processing algorithms.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder