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8 January 2007

Wanted: a year devoid of sensation

Brown and Cameron should try to make politics as dull as possible

By Martin Bright

One revealing paradox of British politics is that the more exciting it gets for those inside the Westminster village, the more of a turn-off it is for everyone else. The year ended with an unprecedented political event: a sitting prime minister questioned by the police in a criminal investigation. It also ended with the membership of political parties at a historically low level. Never has the British electorate been as disillusioned with those it put in office as it is at the beginning of 2007.

During 2006 it transpired that all three major parties had used loans to bypass new legislation on the declaration of large donations. No one is innocent here. Political journalists are prone to hyperbole (sadly it’s often the only way to keep people’s interest), but in the case of 2006, such sensationalism was justified.

If there is one lesson Gordon Brown and David Cameron should take from the events of the past year, it is to make politics as dull as they can. If they succeed, there might be a chance to rebuild faith in our institutions. I say Brown, because Tony Blair’s utterances have become increasingly irrelevant. The Prime Minister’s tenth New Year message was little more than a rerun of his first. But Blair was right to say that his government’s great achievement has been to establish a consensus based on the principles of social democracy. Even the Conservatives are the party of social justice, as Cameron’s appeal to “working people” in his New Year message was intended to show.

There are signs that some within the Conservative Party are learning the benefits of making it dull. Journalists privileged to receive the output from Tory HQ over the festive season will have realised that the party has finally got the hang of being an opposition after almost a decade of trying. While others have been making merry, the shadow transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, and Andrew Lansley at health have been busy turning worthy but dull into an art form. Anyone who doubts Grayling’s ability to grasp mind-numbing rail statistics should read his seasonal press release on fare increases. And those who work with Lansley are said to marvel at his appetite for the detail of NHS policy. His Christmas press releases suggest he takes his job very seriously indeed. One of my favourites was: “Acquiring good-quality data is necessary but not sufficient.” A leak from the East of England Strategic Health Authority here, a dodgy obesity database there, an attack on maternity cuts: by increment, Lansley is building a picture of government incompetence.

The appearance of the Labour chair, Hazel Blears, at a street protest against NHS cuts in her Salford constituency allowed Lansley to score the easy hit of inviting her to join his party’s campaign. As Labour embarks on its own policy review, it would do well to study the work of grafters such as Grayling and Lansley.

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It seems that in the present circumstances, for inhabitants of the Westminster village at least, this coming year will prove to be fascinating. But to show my commitment to keeping politics grey, here are five areas where the political classes need to watch out:

The legitimacy question. An internet poll running on Yahoo News says that over 80 per cent of people believe there should be a general election when Blair leaves office. When Brown takes over he will face growing pressure to call a snap election. On present polling evidence the result would be very close indeed, and that could excite even the most jaded voter.

The NHS. This is fast becoming a real fault-line within new Labour. The Tories have succeeded in labelling these as “Brown’s cuts”. Already John Reid, Tessa Jowell and Jacqui Smith have joined local protests, like Blears, against the cuts.

Cash for honours. Further arrests or charges against people in Blair’s inner circle would send shock waves through the system. For once, this is no hyperbole.

Michael Ashcroft’s money. The controversial deputy chairman is now arguably the most influential Conservative aside from Cameron himself, in effect running the party’s youth wing, Conservative Future, and developing its strategy on marginal seats. He loaned the party £3.6m, far more than any Labour lender. Although he is fiercely litigious, journalists will find it difficult to avoid looking into his activities in the year ahead.

The Cheeky Girls factor. Who could ever have predicted that 2006 would provide kiss-and-tell tales about the size of John Prescott’s manhood, Mark Oaten’s predilection for rent boys, or Lembit Öpik’s taste in Romanian twins? One safe forecast for the year ahead is that we will continue to be fascinated by the sex lives of politicians and they will continue to provide material for the most salacious imaginations. But it won’t make us want to vote for them.