Alan Watkins: Adonis left it too late for a Lib-Lab pact

Nick Clegg now regards himself as one of the big boys, not as a subordinate partner to Labour
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The Independent Online

The truly public meeting faded away over 50 years ago. Instead, coachloads of supporters were bussed in to large halls. These meetings were usually "ticket only" occasions. Sometimes the supporters of the other side managed to infiltrate the event in question. There might be trouble of a minor nature. Violence, such as it was, was invariably brought about by the stewards of the party organising the meeting.

This kind of gathering was on its way out in the 1960s. The last master of the platform was the Labour candidate for prime minister in 1964, Harold Wilson. He was also one of the first politicians to realise the importance of television. At these mass rallies before the 1964 election, which Labour won narrowly, Wilson knew exactly when the cameras would be switched on, and would include the appropriate slogan for the benefit of the viewers at home.

What innocent days they were! The sole object now is to show the party leaders on television, preferably on the early evening news programmes. The most distinguished political correspondents in the land must travel hither and yon with the leader because the leader has another engagement to fulfil. The appearance may be at a school, or in a factory, or wherever you like. The purpose of political life is to be on television.

In these circumstances, the first week of the campaign has proved quite instructive. For once, I find myself taking the Labour side. The majority of my colleagues seemed to have judged it a points victory for the Conservatives in the opening rounds. The controversy is about the rise in the employers' contribution to National Insurance.

This caused very little fuss at the time of Mr Alistair Darling's Budget a couple of weeks ago. There seemed to be more possible trouble in the rise of duty on cider. This has now been delayed, or is not going to happen at all.

Enter Mr George Osborne, a stage pantomime villain. He has a top hat, a black coat and a nice line in the seduction of innocent maidens. He seduced 35 assorted captains of industry and commanders of commerce into opposing Mr Darling's increase in national insurance. More than this, Mr Osborne promised to repeal the measure if the Conservatives were to form a government.

Even Lord Mandelson, no stranger to the wicked ways of the political world, pronounced himself shocked by the affrontery of Mr Osborne's declaration: or he said he was. Mr Osborne is not the universal favourite or the popular pet of the political classes. His supercilious expression goes against him.

But of the politicians around Mr David Cameron, the most effective is Mr Osborne. He made Mr Gordon Brown alter Mr Darling's economic statement to take account of Mr Osborne's partial cut in death duties. The Labour Government has still not made matters clear in its head – or to anyone else.

It is one thing for Mr Osborne to cause confusion about inheritance tax or death duties; something else again, to make a prime minister change his mind about calling a general election, as Mr Brown changed his mind in 2007.

True, there was some trouble to do with a yacht, Lord Mandelson, and the alleged betrayal of a confidence or confidences. At the time, it was said that Mr Osborne was lucky to escape with his political life. But the details were obscure, they were quietly forgotten, and they have now sunk beneath the seas.

My objection to Mr Osborne is that he is pushing his luck. Is one of the first actions of a Conservative government really going to be to repeal any rise in National Insurance? In any case, it may be hypothetical. Mr Darling's rise is scheduled for later, by which time he may be otherwise engaged.

In office, a Conservative government might well have to increase employers' contributions off its own bat – not to mention the contribution of the workers, which may come later. Tax-cutting belongs to a previous age, before the crisis of capitalism that happened in 2008.

This leads me to think that Mr Osborne does not really understand the size of the financial crisis that overtook this country two years ago. Both Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron give out different messages depending on the audience they are addressing or even on which day of the week it happens to be. Alas, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne have probably done enough to get them a majority.

I keep coming back to the general election of 1964, which I mentioned earlier in relation to Wilson. He used to refer to his opponent, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, as "the 14th earl". The Earl of Home had renounced his peerage to sit in the Commons and so to qualify as the Prime Minister who succeeded Harold Macmillan.

Home said: "I suppose he must be the 14th Mr Wilson." It was one of the best jokes of the campaign. It certainly annoyed Wilson at the time. Home came to within four seats of defeating Labour.

The outgoing Conservative government then had a majority of 90. Mr Cameron has a slightly easier task in 2010, so my own calculations may be too simple. I do wish, however, that Mr Brown would stop going on about being "middle class", as he was doing last week. He is the son of a Presbyterian minister who had his own church in the middle of Kirkcaldy. He is both apart from and superior to any middle class to which he might be referring.

There is almost an intellectual class composed of the children of Anglican clergymen, Scotch ministers of religion and Welsh schoolmasters, and many rogues there have been among them along the way. Mr Brown is not one of these, but when they were handing out the prizes at the charm school – not that Mr Brown would ever have attended such an academy – his name never appeared on the list.

So far I have managed to escape the hung parliament. But there is no getting away from Lord Adonis, and his proposal that Liberal Democrats vote tactically for the Labour candidate, to keep the Tory out, in certain seats. I take it that, in other seats, the Labour voter should vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats. Otherwise it would not be fair to the Liberal Democrats.

In the past few months he has been winning glowing opinions for his work as minister of transport. I am sure they are thoroughly justified. I can even add a small tribute of my own. A few years ago I contributed an essay to a volume on Roy Jenkins, jointly edited by Lord Adonis. I managed to get the writing done more or less on time, but it was in my own handwriting, and the publisher was pressing. Lord Adonis sat up all night to disentangle my writing and to give it to the printers in a presentable form.

Warmly though I feel about Lord Adonis, I do not think a modern version of the Lib-Lab pact is going to come to anything much today. Mr Nick Clegg is not prepared to be seen, as he inevitably would be seen, as the subordinate partner to Mr Brown. Why should he be? Mr Clegg now regards himself as one of the bigger boys. Mr Brown should have made his overtures long ago. Or Mr Tony Blair should have done it long before that. It is now too late.