DJ Taylor: Even after the chickens are counted, there's nothing to crow about

The Lib-Con coalition has stifled the post-election tradition of triumphalism, while the Labour leadership contest threatens to produce a Cam-Clegg clone
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The Independent Online

While the events of the past few days have yielded up all kinds of items relished by students of the political scene – subterfuge, voltes face, rumours of a double-cross – they have been conspicuously lacking in that other great staple of the post-election firmament: triumphalism.

There have been recriminations, there have been insults – a special mention here to David Blunkett for describing his prospective coalition partners as "harlots" – but no one has been able to use their new-found grip on power as an opportunity to issue threats or pay off old scores.

Looking for the roots of triumphalism – at any rate in the modern era – one finds them in the Labour Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, briskly informing the Opposition of 1945 that "we are the masters". They're also in the antiphonal response of the grand Tory lady – much quoted in social histories of the 1950s – who declared, after the 1951 election gave the Conservatives a small majority – that, at last, it was possible to sack servants again. But triumphalism's most conspicuous flowering, naturally, came in the general elections of 1983 and 1987 when the "you be damned" expressions on the faces of Tory activists, crowding around Conservative Central Office to welcome Mrs Thatcher home, were quite nauseating to behold.

Suddenly, all this has gone. Doubtless, down in the safe Conservative seat of Loamshire Central, Sir Bufton Tufton, snug amid his 20,000-vote majority, is silently congratulating himself on having seen off the collection of public-money squanderers, Euro-zealots and scaremongering Greens by whom he was so negligibly opposed, but this time round, for very obvious reasons, Sir Bufton has to keep quiet. In the past, the news of an incoming Tory Prime Minister has nearly always been accompanied by a sinking feeling that the world has been made safe for such salient parts of the modern demographic as property developers, investment bankers, airport runway-expanders and supermarket tycoons – every spiv allowed to ply his trade in what still looks like a dangerously under-regulated marketplace. Almost at a stroke a thin, shrill, dispiriting noise has been wiped from the political soundtrack: the noise of politicians crowing.

*****

One ancient proverb coaxed into dramatic new life at the start of the week was the danger of counting your chickens before they are hatched. Gordon Brown's announcement on Monday afternoon that he was standing aside to facilitate discussions with the Lib Dems about the forging of that "progressive alliance" to which he was such a belated convert came at exactly the wrong time for the newspapers, most of whom sent their editions to press in the presumption that some kind of centre-left deal was about to be stitched up. This meant that, come Tuesday morning when the wind had already begun to blow back in the other direction, millions of people would have been reading articles about rainbow alliances and Miliband-led coalitions. The Labour MP Denis MacShane, for example, produced a well-meaning piece in The Independent talking up the "astute timing" of Mr Brown's resignation and proposing that the way was being opened to a "new politics". Even Private Eye, which goes to bed late on a Monday afternoon, was forced to hedge its bets and offer a picture of the Queen remarking that if the contending suitors did not hurry up and plight their troth, she would have to toss a coin.

We have been here before, of course. In the Labour leadership election of November 1980, whose final vote took place on a Monday, the New Statesman was so convinced that Denis Healey would edge out Michael Foot that it commissioned a leftish MP, Chris Price, to write an open letter to Healey congratulating him on his victory, but warning him to look out for storms. This appeared on the preceding Thursday: Foot subsequently won by 10 votes. Naturally, the not-counting-your-chickens adage has a currency well beyond politics. It can also, for example, be applied to grandiose personal gestures.

My father had a colleague at the Norwich Union Insurance Society, as it then was, who, deeply irked by the monotonous thraldom of his employ, was cheered one Saturday night to discover that he had notched up eight score draws on his pools coupon. A telephone enquiry suggested that he stood to win a very large sum of money. Emboldened, he arrived hot-foot at work first thing on the Monday morning, demanded an interview with the chief general manager, resigned on the spot and, additionally, favoured his employer with a few pointed observations about his managerial style. He then went home for lunch to find that his wife, whose responsibility it was, had forgotten to send in the form.

*****

Almost as exciting as the general election just past is the prospect of a Labour Party leadership contest: the closest thing to a blood sport known to contemporary politics and almost certain to produce weeks of in-fighting in which no quarter will be given and no holds barred. Already, though, the usual pattern of such contests – instant closing of ranks around the man most likely to – has kicked in, and David Miliband has been installed as the bookies' favourite at short odds of 2/7.

I can't be the only party member to think that this is a terrible idea. It is not that Mr Miliband isn't qualified to do the job, simply that – his political views notwithstanding – he is practically an exact clone of Messrs Cameron and Clegg. All three of them are tall, personable, good in front of a camera, wear close-fitting dark suits with gentlemanly aplomb and are doing their best to disguise receding hairlines. All were not only born within a few months of each other, but were educated more or less in the same room. Mr Cameron went to Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. Mr Clegg went to Westminster and Robinson College, Cambridge. Mr Miliband, although schooled at his local comprehensive, ended up at Corpus Christi, Oxford. None of them, with the exception of Cameron's stint at Carlton Television, has ever done a proper job beyond the world of politics. If Mr Miliband is elected, consequently, we shall face the prospect of being governed by a series of variations on the same person. John Cruddas (Oaklands Comprehensive, Portsmouth, Warwick University) ought to throw his hat into the ring forthwith.

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The most depressing statistics I read this week came in a Sheffield University survey of literacy and numeracy standards. This suggested that 22 per cent of the country's 16- to 19-year-olds are functionally innumerate and 17 per cent are functionally illiterate. According to Professor Greg Brooks, one of the study's authors, the definition of functional innumeracy is "very basic competence in maths, mainly limited to arithmetical computations and some ability to comprehend other forms of mathematical information". Those described as functionally illiterate "can handle only simple tests and straightforward questions".

According to Professor Brooks these percentages have remained static for 20 years – a period, it might be pointed out, when billions of pounds were thrown at secondary education in a bid to raise standards. All this serves to pose a question which, you hope, the incoming Education Secretary, Michael Gove, will shift to the top of his in-tray. The "high skills economy" in which our young people are expected to play their part is one of the great modern clichés, as are the great strides that all these young people are making in their hi-tech, computer-strewn classrooms, and now it turns out that one-fifth of them can barely read and write. What is to be done with them? Who is to stop them from turning into an unemployable fifth column, eternally resentful of the other 80 per cent of society? The slogan of the excellent comprehensive school half a mile away is "Success for all". Everybody? Even that functionally illiterate 20 per cent? Where are the jobs for them to do? No doubt Mr Gove's incisive mind is already on the case.

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As a connoisseur of inappropriate gifts, I was fascinated to learn that Her Majesty the Queen's parting gift to Gordon Brown is supposed to have been a Smythson photograph frame – Smythson, of course, being the high-class stationery concern from which Samantha Cameron has just stepped down as creative director. Her Majesty hasn't quite scaled some of the heights known to literature – Kingsley Amis, perhaps, who once absconded from the family home with his mistress, Elizabeth Jane Howard, leaving his wife the birthday present of a baby-doll nightdress chosen by Howard – but she has come pretty close. All my own failings in this department – like giving my wife the books I want to read myself – suddenly pale into insignificance. To all the Queen's other qualities – longevity, unflappability, neutrality – can now be added one more: a sense of irony.

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