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Sunday 16 May 2010

Glued to spectacle of the unthinkable being thought

The horse-trading was a fabulous political orgy but normal contempt for politicians will return soon, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

IRISH sophisticates accustomed to the bribery and strong-arming that accompanies the building of coalitions were raising eyebrows at the hysteria in the UK between Friday, May 7, (when it became clear there was a hung parliament) and last Tuesday night (when Gordon Brown left Downing Street). ('Sort it out clowns' was the helpful advice on Tuesday morning from the Daily Star.)

But Westminster is used to replacing prime ministers within a few hours of an election result, and although since devolution there is power-sharing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the English think it's a funny Celtic habit best kept at the fringes of the civilised world, except in wartime.

Having voted overwhelmingly for the Conservatives, the English were denied the government they wanted. There were only eight Tory seats in Wales, one in Scotland and none in Northern Ireland, which gave a fillip to English nationalism. After a few days listening to the likes of contemptuous Alex Salmond of the SNP and unctuous Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP hinting at the price they would exact for their vote, there were many English wishing they could chuck the Celtic regions out of the United Kingdom.

I was one of the saddos who spent a long weekend switching TV channels to watch hacks screaming idiotic questions at middle-aged men entering or leaving homes, cars or imposing buildings with meeting rooms.

Yet the drama was fantastic, for the unthinkable was being thought and tempers were fraying. What joy it was to see the magisterial Adam Boulton of Sky News on the edge of chinning a sneering Alistair Campbell for accusing him of being a Conservative?

This was particularly delicious for the cognescenti who know that Boulton is married to Anji Hunter, who was Tony Blair's gatekeeper until a jealous Cherie made her life impossible; and that Campbell is picking on Boulton purely because he's consumed with rage that Sky's owner Rupert Murdoch has switched allegiance to the Tories. There was the 'What-is-Mandy-playing-at-now?' theme throughout, as the feline Lord Mandelson slid gracefully in and out of Downing Street and occasionally purred to the camera. He did not let us down. It was he who masterminded the removal of the prime minister by persuading him that if he announced he would quit as party leader, Nick Clegg -- who detested Brown -- might do a 'keep-the-Tories-out' (aka 'progressive') deal with Labour and a smattering of Celts.

Depending on which of the partisan newspapers you read, Brown was a hero for sacrificing himself for his political tribe ('For the greater Gord' -- Daily Mirror) or an unprincipled scoundrel ('This shabby stitch-up' -- Daily Express) bent on denying office to the rightful winners.

This produced senior Labour figures suggesting that a losers' coalition was undignified and undemocratic, but much glee from the frivolous about the comic possibilities of an eight-party coalition of the awkward nurtured by Brown -- who gets on with almost no one -- during the four months it takes to elect a Labour leader.

Then there was the shock of David Cameron -- whose gambling instincts and strong nerves have been underestimated -- going for broke and boldly offering electoral reform and a full coalition, followed by the shock-horror revelation that Lib Dems and Labour had had secret talks.

All over the media were denunciations of Clegg as a two-faced liar and hypocrite whom no one could ever trust again, but smart politicians recognised that he had a left wing to deal with: later statements from his party denouncing Labour negotiators as inflexible and unengaged removed internal opposition to the Tory deal.

Then Brown, for once, communicated brilliantly, smiled like a human being, and created for posterity the poignant image of his little family hand-in-hand walking away from Number 10, Downing Street, as his colleagues prepared the ground for the imminent Labour civil war.

And then came Wednesday and what is now being called the civil partnership of Cameron and Clegg in the garden of Number 10, looking young, energetic, purposeful and good-humoured.

The media sank to the occasion with predictable comparisons with Ant and Dec, Morecambe and Wise, the Chuckle Brothers and Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. Boris Johnson rose to it just as predictably, describing the coalition as a mongrel born of a bulldog and a chihuahua.

Rather more important is that -- like their leaders -- senior Lib Dems and Tories have discovered they quite like each other, Cameron has stitched his new best friend tightly into the coalition, and together they have made good appointments and sane compromises. However, the airwaves are now full of outraged Tory-hating Lib Dems convinced that their party is doomed because Cameron has ensured it will share the public odium when the savage cuts and tax rises hit, that their left will emigrate to Labour and their right to the Conservatives. And there are plenty of enraged Celts glaring at their empty begging-bowls.

This has been a fabulous political orgy: normal boredom with politics and contempt for its practitioners will resume shortly.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards