Even the heathen hounds of the press came away from yesterday's manifesto launch straightening their ties and shuffling their shoes as if they'd just been to an unaccustomed church service where the vicar seemed to stare uncomfortably into each of their black souls. Their questions were surprisingly subdued, awed by the, well, awesomeness of the bright spectacle of the knights upon their dais.
Let us, just for this brief moment, luxuriate in the pleasure of their glory. They smile radiantly and shimmer in the clever lights, God's chosen champions. In the front row there are indeed fresh ernest honest faces - George Robertson, Mo Mowlam, Donald Dewar, David Blunkett, Harriet Harman, Chris Smith, Jack Straw - all with the sheen of hope upon them. (Chivalric courtesy draws a veil over Jack Cunningham and one or two others untouched by the purifying magic of the Grail). All things are relative - what makes them look so good is partly the fact that they are not the other lot, those bloodied, fractious, envious and cynical myrmidons crawling off the field of battle in such inglorious disarray.
The language of Blair and his manifesto is studded with christian morality, sometimes christian socialist, sometimes christian democrat. "We make a virtue of the fact that our manifesto does not promise the earth. [But does it hint at promises of heaven?] We are the broad-based movement for progress and justice our founders always dreamed of." Then came not ten commandments but ten commitments, the ones brought down from the mountains of Islington in the leader's own sanctified fair hand: "They are our covenant with you."
Personally, I like a bit of lofty language in a leader. Maybe, as some muttered, it's all empty nothings, windy, airy pieties. As they used to say in the BBC, Only Time Will Tell. But in John Major, as I wrote yesterday, the lack of language was the clearest symptom of his lack of vision, fibre or direction. Good language does not guarantee good leadership, but it is probably a prerequisite.
What of the content? He promised nothing new and, true to his word, his covenant gave us nothing new. But there were all the promises laid down over the last couple of years that mark the cornerstones for any liberal doubters - the minimum wage, an end to youth unemployment, devolution and a referendum on PR. But side by side sits that christian democrat flavour that some liberals may like rather less: "We will build strong families" sounds more like a threat than a promise. Yet embedded in this manifesto I find enough talk of social justice to persuade me that he means it. Maybe once, though, long ago in the first flush of victory, John Major really meant to give us a "classless" society.
The serious problem is enshrined in the manifesto's second commandment, that most holy vow of all - no extra income tax for anyone and a cut in VAT on fuel. There follows a Jesuitical argument: "The myth that the solution to every problem is increased spending has been comprehensively dispelled under the Conservatives. Spending has risen. But more spending has brought neither greater fairness nor less poverty." A good debating point maybe, but a gaping non-sequitur that does not fill the gaping hole in Labour's spending plans.
Here, for example, is an echo of the Tories' equally unfinanced commitment: "We will raise spending on the NHS in real terms every year and put the money towards patient care." But how? The Tory spending plans that Gordon Brown has signed up to mean a real cut over the next few years according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a pounds 5bn hole the like of which the NHS has never ever experienced. So where is the money to come from? And education likewise faces cuts, right now. On the mendacious promises front, the Tory manifesto is certainly even more profligate but neither party can possibly govern on the figures they both profess to have vowed to keep within.
So as we gaze upon those shining faces, we already know that when they step inside their ministries they may be noble knights but if they have no armour and no sword, how can they do battle for truth, beauty and justice? Here we gaze into the eyes of the leader. "Trust me," he says and at this point we have no choice but to believe in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Of course we do not know how the loaves and fishes trick was done. Maybe suppliers had been secretly contracted in advance, plans laid, bread baked and fishes caught. Or maybe it really was a miracle. Or maybe we shall all go hungry. Only Time Will Tell.
What else might we meditate upon in Camelot? We know from the history of all politics and indeed from the sad story of the round table itself that internal strife, factions, jealousies and bitter hatreds break out in time. Beneath this goodly unity there seethes a fair amount of nascent rivalry already. Wait until the great offices of state are handed out. It is hard to recall any cabinet of any party where there has been genuine close fondness and friendship between the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the foreign or defence secretary or the President of the Board of Trade. Even if as new MPs they were friends, when they reach those offices they hunt alone, driven further apart by the visceral separatism of Whitehall departmental baronies. They may look good up there today, Prescott, Brown, Beckett and Cook, flanking their leader so loyally, but politics is not the communion of saints.
In the court of King Blair, there are well-established loathings between the rival armies of some of his barons. And some of his own henchmen strut a little too much in his name. Will Blair, like Henry V on ascending the throne, have the wisdom to abandon one or two of his more presumptuous courtiers? We shall see.
All politics is high drama and for we spectators, a new cast of characters is long overdue. Today, there is charm in their ebullience: their optimism is infectious. Sometimes it is a relief not have a crystal ball.Reuse content