We’ve all heard of the “shy Tories” who won the 1992 election for the Conservatives. Throughout that campaign, opinion polls showed a Labour lead, albeit a very narrow one by the final day. When the votes were counted, the Conservatives had a lead of 7.5 percentage points and a comfortable – even luxurious by the standards of the 2010s – majority of 21 seats. The pollsters attributed their 8.5-point forecasting error to people who didn’t want to admit favouring a party that appealed to base, selfish instincts and that was led by someone as uncool as John Major.
Is there now a shy Labour factor? Ed Miliband has been mocked for more than four years. Nobody, it is said, can imagine him being prime minister; he can’t eat a bacon sandwich properly; he’s an out-of-touch, cerebral wonk; he’s weak and indecisive; he’s about as uncool as it’s possible to get. Who would want to confess admiration for such a man or confidence in his ability to run the country? But perhaps British sympathy for the underdog will emerge on polling day along with a bit of the supposedly discredited “politics of envy”.
I may not believe this theory, outlined to me over a convivial lunch, but it cheers me up no end.
The Queen’s officials, it is reported, are determined that she should play no role in unpicking the constitutional knots that would be created by a hung parliament. The politicians must sort it out among themselves. Only when they are agreed on who should form the next government, courtiers say, will the Queen take up her post at Buckingham Palace. This shows conclusively that we need a republic. What if the politicians never agree? What is the point of having someone supposedly “above politics” if she cannot act as a neutral umpire? An elected president would at least have the authority to bang heads together and, if he or she fouled up, could be thrown out at the next presidential election.
You never know
I wrote recently about how, as a Labour Party member, I am plagued by cold callers asking me to donate, though I have already donated several times. A friend reports a more curious experience. Despite being a branch chair and a constituency Labour Party treasurer, he has had several calls from party volunteers asking how he intends to vote.
One problem with social media is that those of us who wish to live quiet, sheltered lives can no longer remain ignorant of Katie Hopkins. A Sun columnist and former reality TV star who specialises in gratuitous controversy, Hopkins wrote of the migrants being smuggled from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean: “No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.” Her column got nastier, comparing migrants to cockroaches. It provoked a mighty Twitter storm and, as I write, 268,000 signatures on a change.org petition calling on the Sun to sack her.
At least she’s honest. European governments do little to save people from drowning in the Mediterranean lest they encourage more migrants – for whose plight those governments are at least partly to blame – and thus attract the anger of inhospitable voters. If we really cared, we’d offer to accommodate them in our own homes for a few months but even Russell Brand doesn’t do that. “You want to make a better life for yourself?” Hopkins says to them. “Then you had better get creative in northern Africa.” That, in effect, is what we all say. We are just nicer about it, wringing our hands as the boats capsize.
Europe could exercise its collective brain and conscience – the product of over a millennium of Christian civilisation – and find a solution. Perhaps we could deny ourselves immigrants who possess “shortage skills”, leaving them to assist poorer countries, and instead admit only “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . . the homeless, tempest-tost”. After all, immigration is just a question of numbers, isn’t it?
Low hopes for Chilcot
I am not disappointed by reports that the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war may not be published this year, because I never expected much of it anyway. Nobody will change their mind over the war’s merits, nobody will apologise and nobody will go to prison when the inquiry’s findings are eventually published. There was no inquiry into the Suez fiasco of 1956. Everybody accepted that Britain was no longer a great power and just got on with life. Tony Blair, who seems from his actions to be utterly ignorant of history, never learned that lesson and apparently thought nothing much had changed since Henry V led his men at Agincourt. That is all that needs to be said.
Many will disagree and argue, in the immortal words of Tony Benn, that politics is not about “pershonalities” but about “ishoos”. The “ishoo” for Geoffrey Howe, the former Tory chancellor whose resignation speech in 1990 precipitated events that led to Margaret Thatcher’s fall, was Europe. But a new play by Jonathan Maitland, Dead Sheep (after Denis Healey, who said that being attacked by Howe “is like being savaged by a dead sheep”), portrays him as a man torn by conflicting loyalties, even loves, to Thatcher, his political boss for 15 years, and his wife, Elspeth. In real life, the two women allegedly loathed each other. Having obeyed one for so long, Howe – acknowledging in his diffident way that “I have not, perhaps, been the most attentive spouse” – finally does the bidding of the other, with fatal consequences.
The play, which my wife and I saw at the Park Theatre in London, veers uneasily between tragedy and farcical caricature but it brings out wonderfully well the drama of politics and how, no matter what the issues, character and personality count above all.