Hurricanes, like marriages, start with all that sucking and blowing and end with you losing your house

A financial journalist who attacked the Today programme as being aimed at "liberals" has immediately been hired by the BBC to "liven up" the business news and, presumably, to extend it. So, out goes discussing politics, the arts, life, love and the pursuit of happiness, and in comes all the excitement of closely examining the Footsie and the Dow Jones.

An exaggerated respect for the activities of businessmen and women dates from the Thatcher revolution, and has been enthusiastically pursued by new Labour. Lawyers are now all thought of as self-interested fat cats, doctors are blundering amateurs who need close control by civil servants, and schoolteachers are depicted as semi-literate folk singers, stuck in the Sixties. But business tycoons form a heroic, almost priestly, class who inhabit that holy ground - now treated with greater reverence than cathedrals, theatres or galleries - the Market Place.

Market places were generally known as shady squares where you got your pocket picked and sold shares in non-existent South American silver-mines, or patent medicines by smooth-talking quacks. This comically devious institution is now thought to provide the tests that rule our lives. The juries are out, but the market-place, it seems, can be relied on to produce just and correct verdicts.

The other news from the BBC is equally depressing. There is, in fact, to be much less news. Budgets for news programmes are to be cut by £15m, teams of journalists are to be merged, and there is even muttering about replacing Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Paxman and John Humphrys provide the remaining voice of sanity in the increasingly dotty world of politics. They shine like good deeds in a naughty world, and I can think of no reason for replacing them, unless, of course, they are suspected of dangerously hidden "liberal" thoughts.

Cuts in BBC budgets are part of the sacrifice of the organisation on the mystic altar of digital television. I don't know anyone who possesses such machines or has much interest in buying one: but "digitopia", as John Birt called it, appears to be the promised land for which present cuts must be made. We must, says Greg Dyke, "have less ambitious remit". It is remarkable that acceptance of the post of director general seems to entail abandoning any close contact with the English language.

I finally made it to Start the Week for the Monday morning discussion at the BBC. Two weeks ago, it was the morning after the hurricane. The avenue outside my house was blocked at each end by fallen lime trees. We managed to drive round through brambles and bushes and escape. Then I was trapped in a three-hour traffic jam near Northolt. No one told us that the underpass at Perivale was flooded, so we sat on patiently while Jeremy Paxman discussed shopping and philosophy for three-quarters of an hour.

In desperation, I rolled down the window and knocked politely on the window of a trapped Toyota. "Please lend me your mobile," I begged the driver. "Mine doesn't work and I ought to be on Start the Week." Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. He handed it over without a word. The week before that, I had been staying in Spain with the Heavenly Twins, Vicky Lord and Jackie Paice, both wives of members of the band Deep Purple. I had left Vicky Lord's mobile number at home. This led the BBC producers to ring Vicky that disastrous morning and ask her where I'd got to. "I really have no idea," she told them. "At this moment, I'm halfway up a mountain near Zermatt."

An American friend told me that hurricanes are very like marriage. "They start with all that sucking and blowing," he said, "and in the end you lose your house."

The Lords clearly had three hours of breathless excitement discussing anal intercourse for the under-21s. Buggery is a subject of almost mystical significance for English lawyers; within my legal lifetime, a man could be sent to prison for having anal intercourse with his consenting wife, and a number of husbands were convicted of this offence.

A doctor peer said that having anal sex shortens your life by 20 years. How does he know? I never thought death certificates gave as the fatal cause "buggered when 19". Lord Selsdon (Conservative) contributed magnificently to a lively debate by saying he had done many fast things in his time. "I've even eaten the private parts of a green monkey - but none of them matched gay sex for danger."

One elderly peeress, I'm told, unsure of what a "bugger" was, sent to the library for a definition and received the answer: "one who plants a listening device".

I remember a case of rape and buggery coming on before the severe Mr Justice X. On circuit, he had his wife, Lady X, wearing a hat with a feather in it, sitting on the bench by his side. The defence was that the buggery was a simple mishit, when the accused had aimed elsewhere. "That's the most ridiculous defence I ever heard," said the judge. "You can't mistake one type of sex for the other. The two sensations are entirely different!" Everyone in court looked at the grey-haired Lady X with wild surmise. In her feathered hat, she nodded her entire approval.

I don't know if the Earl of Onslow, the jewel among hereditary peers, took part in the debate. It was he who once said: "At the turn of the century, the Church of England were pro-fox-hunting and anti-buggery. Now they're pro-buggery and anti-fox-hunting."

In those two sentences is contained the history of our times.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer

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