Alan Watkins: A dog's dinner of an election

Voters are fed up with Labour, but don't want the Tories either – the leading players are so unimpressive
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The Independent Online

In the last few weeks the politicians and, up to a point, the enlisted commentators (of whom I am not one) have divided into two groups: the Ashcroft faction, and the Unite faction. These are precisely reflected by the respective political parties.

They have their vociferous, even obsessive supporters in the national press. Both groups are concerned with money, with putting up candidates or with gaining an unfair advantage. One lot hopes to gain such an advantage and the other fears it, as the case may be.

Thus The Guardian newspaper cannot leave Lord Ashcroft alone, having inherited the historic function of attacking the (admittedly somewhat dodgy) peer in question from The Times some years ago. The predominantly Conservative press, for its part, prefers to concentrate its fire on the clumsy leviathan Unite and on its man of business Mr Charlie Whelan, who has been flitting in and out of the affairs of the people's party for many years now.

Most people will not pay the slightest attention. They are much more interested in dogs. Last week it was announced that the minister concerned, Mr Alan Johnson, was dropping his proposal on dangerous dogs. Mr Johnson is consolidating his reputation as an unlucky minister. But then, that is the way of home secretaries – much as it is the way of future leaders of the Labour party.

The odd thing is that the lobby correspondents, as far as I could see, were announcing the Government's proposals as if they had been completely new, designed to meet a pressing need. But some of us had been there before. I remember a conversation I had with my late friend Peter Jenkins, who was writing a distinguished political column in The Independent in the early 1990s.

The home secretary was Kenneth Baker, later Lord Baker of Dorking. It was Jenkins's habit often to have lunch with a minister, write down what he said, usually with a few embellishments of his own, and to serve up the ensuing product on the next day for the enlightenment and edification of the readers of The Independent. Dangerous dogs were much in the news at the time. A poor child, perhaps several, had been savaged. The popular press demanded that something should be done. Baker confided to Jenkins that something was indeed going to be done. He had the outlines of his proposals already set out.

Jenkins, entirely properly, put them in his column. I told Peter that they would not work. Dogs, I remarked sapiently, were strange creatures. Jenkins replied that he was sure the home secretary would have taken proper advice. I said it was not at all evident he had done anything of the kind. It was much more likely that Lord Baker, as he duly became, would have followed the instructions laid down in The Sun and the Daily Mail.

The consequence was The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (as amended 1997). A whole branch of the criminal law grew up, comparable to the libel bar for civil matters, or the income tax bar, in this case to save their cherished pets from destruction at the hands of the authorities. A young barrister would inaugurate his or her career with a tricky dogs case at the Dorking magistrates' court, or wherever it might be.

It is a wonder that Mr Johnson can hold up his head at all. But that is the way of government in decline. And yet, ministers carry on governing, after a fashion. Mr Alistair Darling will doubtless be received on Wednesday with much waving of order papers and cries of "More, more" – the idiot cries initially designed to bolster up Mr Gordon Brown in his times of tribulation.

The truth is that most people are fed up with the present government and with Mr Brown in particular but that few are at all enthusiastic about seeing the Tories in power. Hence the attraction of the hung parliament. All kinds of solutions are being canvassed to keep Mr David Cameron out – or, perhaps, some of his more fly-by-night colleagues out. But, unless something extraordinary happens, the Conservatives are going to form the largest party after 6 May.

The result of the 1929 election was: Labour 288 seats, Conservatives 260 and Liberals 59. Labour was the largest single party (as it had not been when it first took office in 1924). After what was described as "careful thought", the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, decided it would be "more honest" to resign immediately.

Though some constitutional experts – they were with us even in those days – felt that the correct course would still be for him to face the new House of Commons and thereby oblige David Lloyd George and the Liberals to declare their hand, King George V's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, was having none of it:

"If I were prime minister I should not give a moment's consideration to what Lloyd George would or would not do; nor to any other of what might be called the 'expert parliamentarian' point of view. The fact is that you and I [he was writing to a fellow courtier], who naturally are inclined to look back to precedents, must remember that they are as little applicable to England as they would be to China. Democracy is no longer a meaningless sort of shibboleth... [it is] for better or worse the political voice of the state."

In February 1974 Edward Heath, unlike Baldwin in 1929, refused to accept the verdict of the electorate. There were several reasons, or excuses for this. The gap between the main parties was only four. The Conservatives had polled more votes. And they still formed the government. Harold Wilson, who was understandably irritable with Heath but behaved impeccably in public, was soon back again in No 10.

Having resolved not to write about a hung parliament this week, I find myself coming back to the same subject. The reason lies in the deeply dispiriting nature of the Conservative Party.

The more I know of Mr Cameron, the stronger my doubts become. His career in Carlton Communications seems to have consisted mainly in trying to please the boss, Mr Michael Green, in bullying his subordinates, and in misleading various journalists.

There are those who claim to discern a calming influence in the form of Mr William Hague, but I cannot see it myself. Mr Hague was the most belligerent politician to urge on Mr George Bush in Iraq – more so than Mr Tony Blair was himself. I have already referred to Lord Ashcroft. Mr Hague has hardly covered himself with glory in this respect.

As for Mr George Osborne, I confidently expect the Fraud Squad to arrest him at any moment for trying to pass himself off as a competent finance minister. Happily, or alas, it is not going to happen. Mr Cameron should switch Mr Osborne with Mr Kenneth Clarke. That is not going to happen, either.

There is no means of voting for a hung parliament. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is more rather than less likely to lead to such an outcome. But it is by no means certain. It is, I think, the most hopeless, the most despairing, general election since that of October 1974.