Steve Richards: Well done Alex and Ed, but David wins by a head

Leaders or aspiring leaders must try to appear overwhelmingly dominant, when mostly they are not

Share

Recently I bumped into Michael Heseltine and exclaimed to him with banal excitement: "Politics is really interesting at the moment." He paused and replied with a mischievous smile: "Politics is always interesting." He is right, of course. Politics is about human beings seeking to resolve differences through words rather than force, pursuing ambition, attempting to win ideological battles, manoeuvring, projecting through the media, implementing policies. The vocation is inherently fascinating at all times. Those who are tired of politics are tired of life.

Nonetheless, I stand by my simplistic declaration to Michael Heseltine. The vocation becomes more darkly compelling in a hung parliament with an economy that might fall into a second recession. We are not used to peacetime coalitions and most voters have not lived through such bleak economic times. In such circumstances, politics comes to matter even more. We need it to work and, yes, it has been a really interesting year.

So interesting, in fact, that this column will inaugurate a new award: Politician of the Year. It obviously cannot be based on whether or not I agree with them. The judgement must be made on the basis of how well a politician has adapted to the often impossibly daunting external circumstances around them. Leaders or aspiring leaders must try to give the impression of overwhelming dominance, when mostly they are trapped in a tiny amount of space with nowhere to go.

There are three candidates who have transcended the limits that might have manacled lesser figures. The first is Alex Salmond, the most talented and self-assured politician in the UK. His dominance of Scottish politics remains breathtaking and might have historic consequences. Labour is now struggling to recover in a land they once ruled with ease. The Conservatives are nowhere to be seen, and now Salmond contemplates holding a referendum on independence. He will only hold the plebiscite if he is confident of victory, meaning the break-up of the United Kingdom is suddenly a possibility. Salmond is a master and beneficiary of the devolution settlement that he passionately opposes, which is one of the forms of his genius.

The second candidate is the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. The fact that he is shadow Chancellor is testimony to his wilful determination to keep going through the ups and downs of politics. Ed Miliband was wary of appointing him when Alan Johnson resigned, and yet he was the obvious choice. Since then, his bold predictions about what would happen if George Osborne pressed ahead with his speedy cuts have been proved right. At the beginning he had the support of a few perceptive economic columnists, but was largely on his own. Being on your own is, by definition, a lonely place to be. In politics it can be career-threatening. But Balls has political courage and a capacity to mix an expertise in economics with the tactical game that forms a part of politics. David Cameron called him the most annoying figure in British politics, another form of vindication.

Cameron is the third candidate. He leads on the narrowest of stages. To the one side of him are the increasingly stroppy Liberal Democrats, on the other is an assertive parliamentary party that cannot be easily appeased with the promise of ministerial jobs. Prime ministerial patronage is a powerful weapon in controlling a party, but Cameron has fewer jobs at his disposal in a coalition. Meanwhile, economic storms are brewing on a scale that makes those of the 1970s and 1980s seem little more than minor breezes.

Other leaders in comparable circumstances were exhausted and demoralised. Harold Wilson leading a hung parliament in the 1970s, John Major in the economic doldrums in the early 1990s and Gordon Brown in 2008, all lost their humour and political guile partly because there was no cause for laughter and they felt trapped politically. Cameron remains vivacious and witty and is implementing a radical Tory agenda without having won the election. In policy terms, he is skating on thin ice and I suspect the ice will crack next year, but, for now, we are looking back.

Salmond holds sway on a smaller canvas. Balls has yet to persuade the wider electorate and some in his party that he has all the answers. Cameron ends the year in a stronger position than he should be, still evasive as a political figure to the point of being almost uninteresting. This is a triumph of sorts in such a turbulent context and when, as Michael Heseltine observed, politics is inherently interesting. So David Cameron is my Politician of the Year.

s.richards@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments