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


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. /

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific