White out: a bidet following a landslide in Costa Rica, 2010. (Photo: Getty)
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It’s a happy bidet that contains the LRB, the TLS and a few copies of Viz

The appliance hasn’t worked since the days of Callaghan but provides an excellent receptacle for reading matter.

Although the bidet in the downstairs loo has not worked since, I would guess, the last days of the Callaghan government, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good and, as I believe I have had occasion to mention before, it now serves as a handy receptacle for reading matter should you wish to improve your mind. In what some may consider a serious bid to get into Pseuds Corner for the first time in what feels like ages, this tends to be of a highbrow nature: PN Review, the LRB and the TLS, a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa and Kevin Jackson’s volume on Ruskin.

There are some copies of Viz for the young at heart and for a long time I found Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo a much better and more fascinating read than I had snobbishly suspected it was going to be when I took it out of the Jiffy bag. But the former Arsenal and Scotland goalie’s book has gone missing, so you’ll see instead a 1991 edition of E M Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations. This is always good for a chuckle.

Cioran, in case the name is unfamiliar, was a Romanian exile living in Paris. He was of such a bitter and gloomy nature that when he needed cheering up even more than he usually did, he would visit his pal Samuel Beckett. Apparently Beckett grew to dislike these visits and the final one ended with Beckett throwing Cioran out of his flat, saying, “For feck’s sake, Emil, lighten up, you miserable bastard. Things aren’t as bad as all that.” (I suspect I am embellishing the facts rather a lot here, so if you’re writing an academic work on either Beckett or Cioran, it might be best if you do not quote anything from this piece as a primary source.)

Cioran’s maxims are always bracing. “On a gangrened planet, we should abstain from making plans, but we make them still, optimism being, as we know, a dying man’s reflex.” That’s the stuff to give the troops and, as one rises from stool, one feels a braver and less deceived person for it. That, at least, is the intention: you could also have learned why a googly is called a “Bosie” in Australia if some swine hadn’t  stolen Bob Wilson’s book. Visitors to the Hovel are now stuck with Cioran, Pessoa and the rest.

This needn’t be a bad thing. What was that about plans again? (And don’t you love that “gangrened”? So much nastier than “gangrenous”. You hear the green of corruption in it.) I have abandoned making plans ever since I used up the 2008 diary given to me by the Finn. This has resulted in countless missed parties and invitations; and this, in turn, has resulted in people assuming I’m dead, so I now no longer miss parties because I’m not invited to them in the first place. However, I’ll have to plan to clean up the living room within the next couple of weeks because it turns out that the woman who ran screaming from the place when she was shown round it last month has decided that it might be best not to be so fussy after all.

I sympathise with her. Most people, when they see the Hovel for the first time, see it, as Martin Amis said of western tourists visiting India, through the mists of their own rejection and I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I first saw my new home. But all new homes are sad in some way, especially when the circumstances of leaving the previous one have been traumatic. A shared home is doubly sad if you are not sharing it with anyone you love. The new lodger will only be here for six months at most, if she is not put off by weirdo Romanian philosophers in the bidet (“One can imagine everything, predict everything, save how low one can sink”), 16,000 books in the living room (which I am under instructions to deal with – another plan I have to make) and a funny smell in the kitchen, which is not the sweet smell of rotting fruit, as it was last time, but something like an enormous loaf of bread that has gone mouldy, which may well need the services of Rentokil.

I look around me at the piles of books and Jiffy bags in the living room. It will take, I estimate, a full day of hard work to sort them out, so I had better start putting the task off right now.

But look! It’s Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo! I think Cioran and Pessoa and the tidying can wait. I want to know why West Bromwich Albion are known
as “the Baggies”.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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