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Sunday 18 December 2005

Truly a great time to be a politics nerd

JUST as we learn that Pope Benedict intends to announce that limbo doesn't exist, we are told by no less an authority than the Times that it is the very place where the Liberal Democrats now reside. The London Evening Standard is more pessimistic, telling us that the Lib Dem leader 'is doomed'.

Daily, the papers are packed with stories about Tony Blair being vulnerable, a lame duck and generally yesterday's man, and meanwhile, the Guardian newsblog points out that the anagram of the surname of the 39-year-old new Conservative leader, David Cameron, is 'romance'.

The election of David Romance has caused the British political pot to boil over: many depressed Labourites and Lib Dems have decided they want a party leader just like him. He is busily turning up the heat.

He was elected on Tuesday December 6, and since then has been running all around the United Kingdom making surprising speeches.

On Monday, for instance, he was in Leeds, announcing detailed and radical steps to get more women and ethnic minority candidates elected as Conservative MPs.

On Wednesday, he was in the City of London admitting past Tory errors and explaining why the party under his leadership could once again be trusted with the economy.

On Thursday he was in Northern Ireland, bluntly announcing that the Conservatives will not tolerate 'On the Runs' being allowed to go home without having to turn up in court.

He has confirmed in position the admirable, intelligent and tough Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, David Lidington, who has been leading the battle in the House of Commons on this squalid Adams/Blair deal, which, by the day, is becoming ever more embarrassing for the government. Unlike John Reid, once Northern Ireland Secretary of State and now Secretary of State for Defence, Lidington is too modest to use his history doctorate.

On Friday, Cameron capitalised on the Lib Dems' turmoil by donning some of their best clothes and twirling down the Conservative's new shiny catwalk.

"Today," he announced, "We have a Conservative Party that believes passionately in green politics, that is committed to decentralisation and localism, that supports open markets, that is prepared to stand up for civil liberties and the rule of law, and which wants Britain to be a positive participant in the EU, as a champion of liberal values."

And charmingly - for David Cameron does charm as well as Tony Blair ever did - he invited those Liberal Democrats voters, councillors and MPs who shared those values to join the new Conservative party. The Lib Dems are panicking and they have much to panic about. They have 62 seats in the House of Commons, many of which are vulnerable to the Conservatives: in the general election last May they gained 12 seats from Labour, but against the Conservatives lost five and won only three.

Against all predictions, the long-drawn-out campaign for the Tory leadership revitalised and energised the party, persuaded a surprised public that it contained people of real talent and one real star. And it gave the Cameroons plenty of time to get a support system ready to serve their man from the moment his victory was announced.

Poor Charles Kennedy, who has been Lib Dem leader for six years, is under assault from his colleagues for what they politely call 'under-performing', but what they really mean is drinking and socialising at the expense of work.

Yet if, as seems certain, they get rid of him, they will also get be getting rid of the great woolly overcoat of consensual blather that has covered up the awkward truth that many Lib Dem MPs are really liberal Conservatives and many more are old-fashioned sandal-wearers who are well to the left of New Labour.

Labour MPs are also in a funk, for everything their government touches these days is turning to dross. Almost every Labour-voting friend I have now hates Blair with a passion because of what they see as his combination of authoritarianism and incompetence.

What's more, Gordon Brown's sums no longer seem to add up and he's beginning to look old by comparison with the Boy Wonder, most notably when he tries to dismiss him as a Old Etonian toff: class warfare is no longer fashionable.

Labour loyalists were badly rattled by the success of Cameron's first outing at Prime Minister's Questions and are currently even more rattled by his strategy of exploiting the Blair-Brown split by backing Blair reforms that the Brownites hate.

Cameron is as yet untested, Kennedy and Blair are fighting for their political lives, the tea-rooms and bars of Westminster are heaving with Labour and Lib Dem plotters while the hitherto demoralised Conservatives are rushing about purposefully.

It is indeed a great time to be a politics nerd in Britain these days.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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