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

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
 

David Mellor has been exposed as an awful man, but should he have been?

Simon Kelner
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches