"Isn't it wonderful?" said a friend at the weekend. "Sport and politics providing such excitement at the same time." But, of course. Politics has become a sporting event. How else to explain a public appetite that veers from a 10 per cent majority in favour of Labour to a 4 per cent majority in favour of the Conservatives within the space of a week? What else accounts for the extraordinary fervour which has gripped the players and their supporters over the last week?
Just as in sport, the winner takes all now in politics. When you're the victor, as Labour has been through three elections, your opponent simply collapses into an abyss of failure. All except the most stalwart fans lose interest. But once there's the smell of a real contest, then suddenly everyone becomes interested again. When England seemed destined to be hustled unceremoniously out of the Rugby World Cup before last weekend, most of my male friends said they weren't going to watch. Once news came through that England had actually won against Australia, there was a great burst of enthusiasm even for the France-New Zealand game.
Politics is no different. When everyone thought that Gordon Brown had it in the bag, the voters lost interest in the opposition. What turned it around was not so much the attraction of a single tax cut ploy – although it was a well-timed and well-aimed initiative – but the sense that the Tories were back in the race, with ideas, with a common touch but above all with the hunger to win.
So it was with Alistair Darling's pre-Budget statement on Tuesday. It's pointless to say now that when this relatively recent addition to the parliamentary agenda was first mooted, the autumn statement was meant to be a primarily economic occasion, intended to set out the economic parameters in which the Government would consider the Budget the following spring.
The simple reality of Tuesday was that we are back to the party politicking we normally associate with the Budget itself, in which nearly all the media attention, and all the Government's intention, was on the headline measures. The economics behind it was barely debated. It was good sport and we can expect plenty more of it until the election in a year-and-a-half or two years' time.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. In the dramatic decline of public interest in politics there has been a constant refrain that it is because people are bored with the tit-for-tat of adversarial debate. If only politicians would concentrate on policies and what affected the ordinary individual, goes the argument, people would return to the fray.
Would that it were true. The loss of interest has come not at a time of extreme factionalism but with the lack of politics associated with Labour's huge majorities in the Commons. Without the air of a real, down-and-dirty struggle for power, politics has seemed boring and irrelevant.
The return of the thrill of a real contest doesn't automatically improve the quality of debate, of course. Quite the reverse, as both parties look for the eye-catching initiatives, which they tendentiously call "ideas". The very fact that the autumn statement has been hijacked to become a battle of budgetary proposals is an indication of what is being lost. Governance in this country, and certainly parliamentary oversight, would be far better if there was an opportunity to debate the underlying economic and expenditure-revenue assumption behind what should be the quite separate Budget.
So too with the inheritance tax. Far too much attention has been paid to this issue from the point of view of the beneficiaries – hence its popularity. But there is a real divide between those who feel that the desire to leave an inheritance is the most primal of human desires, that it is right at this time to encourage people to save for the future and build up assets with their children in mind, against those who believe that free inheritance is an obstacle to equality and the proper redistribution of wealth, that allowing free transfer only leads to sclerosis in society. Simply making the tax a race for proprietorship between two parties illuminates none of this opposition of underlying view.
The return to faction will do little for the politics of Europe, forcing a Government on the defensive to resist even more fiercely a direct appeal to the public and encouraging an Opposition to make the maximum of this pusillanimity. Nor will it do much to help debate on the really crucial questions facing us – whether we should be in Afghanistan, go for a new generation of Trident missiles, uphold civil liberties or abandon them in the name of combating terror, incarcerate criminals or keep them out of prisons, privatise hospitals and encourage schools academies.
Yet the fibs of today – "we were already thinking of raising the threshold on inheritance tax before the Tories came up with their ideas" and so on – are surely better than the bigger lies of the past decade. Partly under the influence of American politics Tony Blair developed a new style of erecting "narratives" – "modernisation" versus traditional views, modernity as against fundamentalism, the global war on terror and, worst of all, the "weapons of mass destruction".
Gordon Brown would now have us believe his own "narrative" – that the past few months have been about "competence" but that he wants to convince the public of his "vision for Britain" before going to the polls.
It won't wash, at least not south of the border. And the English are right to check their wallets as the Prime Minister intones the mantra. When push comes to shove, all the arguments over redistribution and fairness on inheritance for example are nothing when compared to the immediate politics of advantage. We are back to the crude politics of power and maybe it is more honest that we are.
Over time, Brown is probably right. The public aren't too fussed about the "bottling" in delaying an election, or the deceit in claiming that you aren't producing tax changes in order to thwart the opposition when plainly you are. That is the stuff of politics, and a public which believes that politicians are all rogues and liars anyway accept it as part of the game.
Where Brown is wrong is in believing that the next stage is about "ideas" and "conviction". It isn't. It's about competence under pressure and for that the public will judge him, and his team, just as they will judge the English football and rugby teams this weekend. Politics has become a sporting event and in the end they will back the side they think will be the winner.Reuse content