You need to start asking questions when a quiet, empty house is your idea of heaven

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

I lift the duvet and sink my aching limbs into clean, crisp white sheets. Around me, everything is quiet. Not the kind of quiet that you get in our house, which is laden with the knowledge that within two hours it will definitely be shattered by baffling, implacable screams of red-faced outrage. This is real quiet. It’s-going-to-stayquiet quiet.

Aaaaaaah. I close my eyes and think about floating naked in a tropical whirlpool, clutching some kind of delicious cocktail. Am I in heaven? No. I’m at my friend Hannah’s house. But it might as well be heaven. Everything in Hannah’s house is clean. Everything is white. Everything is in the right place. Most importantly, I don’t have to deal with any of it. It is not my responsibility.

I am here on Dr Ibrahim’s orders, because if I don’t get some sleep soon I will pose a danger to myself and others. She has instructed me to leave the baby with Curly while I go and spend the night elsewhere. Hannah, one of my dearest and oldest friends, not only offered her spare room but also threw in a Chinese takeaway for dinner. She is by nature a person who restores order to a disordered world.

It is a measure of how desperate Curly is for me to be sane again that he happily agreed to this arrangement. In fact, he packed my bag for me and practically booted me out of the house. “Why don’t you stay for two nights, hon?”

The way things have been going recently, he would probably be pretty chuffed if I never came back.

I open one eye. On the floor by my bed is a pair of white, fluffy slippers. They are not mine. They are Hannah’s “guest slippers”. I’d never heard of guest slippers before, but I love them so much, it brings a tear to my eye. I don’t even want to wear them. Just knowing they are there, that someone has gone out of their way to bring about my happiness and comfort, makes me feel as warm and fluffy as they are.

Why don’t I have guest slippers? We aren’t exactly overwhelmed with guests in the slightly-too-small flat, which is just as well, because the only place for a visitor to sleep would be on the floor underneath the dining table, surrounded by Lego.

But the question is more profound than that. Hannah and I grew up together. We have similar backgrounds. We even have similar jobs. How have our lives turned out so differently in this, it suddenly seems to me, quite fundamental respect? Is it just happenstance? Or is there a part of me, deep down inside, that doesn’t actually want guest slippers?

Although half of my psyche longs for a calm, adult respectability, is there another, devilish part of me that delights in uncertainty and chaos?

I feel tantalisingly close to some kind of epiphany, but before it arrives a huge, white wave of sleep sweeps over me. I dive gratefully into its heart, and let it bear me away to a distant, longed-for shore.

A good night's sleep is what the doctor ordered. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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