It is the most fascinating, unpredictable and nerve-racking election of all time, and Thursday will not conclude the drama. It will merely be the end of the first act. The campaign has had two surprising aspects. The first was the Liberal upsurge. The second, the Labour Party's self-control. That is almost at breaking point. Just away from the microphones and cameras, the tensions are cracking. As soon as Big Ben starts to strike 10 o'clock on Thursday evening, there will be an eruption which makes Iceland seem trivial. Peter Mandelson will need a police escort. The unfinished political realignment of the early Eighties will be resumed, leading to the end of the Labour Party as we have known it.
In the negotiations, Nick Clegg will be in a much stronger position than David Steel was in 1981. He will have many more MPs than Lord Steel had, and he has more political self-confidence. Nor will he have to worry about rivals. There are no big beasts of the calibre of Roy Jenkins and David Owen to push the Liberal leader away from the limelight. Lord Mandelson? He almost joined the SDP Mark One in 1981. After 1994, he helped Tony Blair to create the SDP Mark Two. Is it now time for Mark Three? Will he now help to finish the job of creating a centre/centre-left party, which marginalises socialism? But Nick Clegg will lead it. The least that he can hope for is to be Leader of the Opposition after the next election.
His greater ambitions depend on David Cameron. It is looking likely that Mr Cameron will be able to form a government. Then his problems will start. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has more or less said that anyone who wants to win this election must be crazy, and one can see what he means. These are the most unpropitious circumstances since 1940. That may explain many voters' reluctance to enthuse for David Cameron.
Can this inexperienced young man really have the necessary qualities?
We will not know the full answer to that question unless and until he is tested in the fire. But there are good reasons for optimism. In the first case, David Cameron is tough, mentally and physically. He has the inexhaustible stamina that a PM needs, and he has the hard, practical intelligence which No 10 also requires. Although he did some serious philosophy at Oxford, he has spent the last 20 years using his considerable intellect to clarify issues and solve problems. With more intellectual self-confidence than either Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, he is not given to agonising. When he thinks something through, he assumes that it will stay thought through. He has no difficulty in taking decisions, or in giving orders.
There is a further point. Though it may seem trivial, it is anything but. I once asked David Cameron whether he was a sound sleeper and received an encouraging answer: head, pillow, out. Contrast that with poor old Gordon who always looks as if MacBrown hath murdered sleep. (Macbeth, Brutus, Henry IV: Shakespeare understood the importance of sleep for those in high command.) A Prime Minister needs to be able to use the limited sleeping-time available to maximum effect, for he is never sure when the crisis might break that will keep him up all night.
The inexperience point is also less of a problem than it might appear, for two reasons. First, both by intellect and by temperament, David Cameron is a realist. Without being deterred by the difficulties he would face, he will never underestimate them. He knows how hard it is to run a government even in benign circumstances, let alone in 2010. Second, he had some valuable experience. The profession – if such it be – of political adviser is much derided: wrongly so. The British Army knows as much about training men as any organisation in history. If it looks as if a young officer might be a general one day, the authorities will appoint him to a general's staff, so that he can see how it is done; what works, what fails.
David Cameron worked for Norman Lamont, who was sacked, and then for Michael Howard, who shared to the full in the Major government's unpopularity. So the young Cameron learned about adversity, and about the mechanisms of government. That was something which Tony Blair never understood, until it was too late. Shortly before Mr Blair resigned, Mr Cameron said that he almost felt sorry for the PM. "Tony's owned a Rolls-Royce for nine-and-a-half years. But he's only just learned how to drive it properly: how to get the best out of it. And it's too late; he's run out of road". David Cameron would never make that mistake.
Moreover, and unlike Tony Blair, he understands the strengths of the Civil Service. That was another lesson he learned in his political adviser days, when he met a lot of able officials, whom he came to like and respect. One of them was Jeremy Heywood, who is now Chief of Staff in No 10. The Blairites' relationship with the civil service was disrupted by their silly misconceptions: one principal reason why their government never ran smoothly (the other was Gordon Brown). That is another mistake which Prime Minister Cameron would not repeat.
The public reaction to David Cameron is also over-influenced by Eton and toffery. It may be that he will have to be PM for a few years before the attention is focused where it ought to be: on foreground, not background. Eton gave him a very good education; his parents, a stable and loving upbringing. But he springs from the hard-working, public-serving upper-middle class, not from some secretive hereditary caste cut off from the rest of society. His background is also admirably balanced between country and city. He is equally at home in London and in the depth of the countryside, and would find it hard to imagine a life that did not include both.
As any Tory should be, he is also rooted in Britain. De Gaulle said that throughout his life, he always had a certain idea of France. That is not how we British talk, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Unfortunate, in that it could produce magnificent prose; fortunate, in that in France, the grandiloquence is the product of embattlement, invasion and the consequent soul-searching, which we complacent Brits have been lucky enough to avoid, thanks to the Channel. But in a reticent English way, Mr Cameron could echo de Gaulle.
In a few days, he, like de Gaulle, may have the chance to turn his ideas into a programme for national recovery. Success is far from certain. The next government will not only have to cut spending and raise taxes. If grim, endless austerity is to be averted, it will have to rely on renewed economic growth, yet the components of that growth are hard to identify. It would be absurd to dismiss Mervyn King's doubts.
Fortunately, David Cameron is undaunted by them. As some readers may be aware, I may be prejudiced. I have always thought that Mr Cameron has the highest qualities. Let us hope that he now has the chance to display them and that it is a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.
For further reading:
John Ramsden: An Appetite for Power (1998)Reuse content