They think it's all over but Britain loves a loser

Paul Routledge on politics
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The Independent Online
John Humphrys got it about right, even though he was wrong. On the Today programme the other morning, he addressed David Blunkett as "Education Secretary", when all the world knows he is nothing more than Labour's front-bench spokesman on the subject. But Mr Blunkett behaves as though he is already in office, as do the rest of the Shadow Cabinet, each with his or her own retinue of press spokesperson, political adviser, general factotum and perhaps even make-up girl. Peter Mandelson is not even an elected member of the Opposition elite, yet he has acquired a chauffeur. Just getting in practice, presumably.

The truth is that, like Hong Kong, we now have two governments. A government in waiting, and a government in the departure lounge. Almost all of the Shadow Cabinet have had meetings with the Permanent Secretary they expect to inherit. Gordon Brown will complete the score-card when he meets the top Treasury mandarin, Terry Burns, this week. He has had talks with European finance ministers and Alan Greenspan, the head of the US Federal Reserve. His adviser, Ed Balls, practically lives in the Treasury building.

By contrast, the real Cabinet is learning how to live in Opposition. In private, conversation with ministers invariably veers back to The Leadership, and who might succeed John Major. Who will run (Home Secretary Michael Howard is declaring his candidacy to anyone who will listen), who might win, and just how far the Conservatives will lurch to the right. This phrase, by the way, is a favourite of Labour's spin doctors, but it can boomerang badly. David Hill, the party's chief spokesman, plonked down his papers on the magnificent oak table in the Shadow Cabinet room recently and told a huddle of Sunday paper lobby correspondents: "Right. This morning, I want to talk about the lurch to the right." "Whose?" came the instant chorus. He should have blushed, but long years in the service of Roy Hattersley have evidently blocked a vein somewhere. On regaining his composure, shameless Hill claimed Labour's lurch to the right is OK, because it takes the party into the middle ground, where the votes are.

The civil service is also preparing for a Tony Blair administration. Once the starting pistol for the election campaign is fired, they will cost the three parties' manifestos in separate folders. Red, blue and yellow, of course. The winners get to see what their plans will really cost the country, though they are never shown the other folders. A mild form of cultural panic appears to have hit Whitehall. The Sir Humphreys are racking their brains to remember what it was like being in the Oxford Labour Club, because it is so long since anything but a Tory crossed the threshold.

This sense of historical inevitability, the notion that the election is all over bar the voting, is worrying Labour strategists. They fear it plays into the hands of the Tories, who, having no policies to speak of for a fifth term of office, are already falling back on the feel-sorry factor. That nice Mr Major, who couldn't even get a job as a bus conductor, and stands on a soap box, and has to put up with so much from those horrid Eurosceptics, deserves our sympathy. He is the underdog, and the British preference for losers is notorious. Small wonder that he scrambled to be the first to congratulate yachtsman Tony Bullimore on his escape from an icy death. He is desperate to generate a similar warmth of feeling.

You can almost write Mr Major's party political broadcast for him. "As you know, this is a very important election. Oh, yes. You have a choice between myself, a decent and sensible fellow who has never let you down in the past, who also likes cats, and that overweening, ambitious public school chap who takes your votes for granted and is already talking as though he is Prime Minister. The only way to stop him is to trust me."

The trouble with this seductive scenario is that it is phonus-bolonus. John Major is not a nice man. He can be testy and small-minded. He fibs at Question Time and indulges himself in time-consuming, self-justifying repetition, as in: "I was right on that question, I am right on that question and the Honourable Member knows I will be right on that question." What is more, he would trap the cat's tail in the door without a second thought, if he thought there were votes in it.

His attempt last week to personalise the election into a goody versus baddy presidential contest will not wash. To begin with, this transparent manoeuvre relies on the voters conveniently forgetting what has happened in the last 18 years - and even more so in the past five - when they show scant signs of so doing. Second, it erroneously assumes that we have become so Americanised that we vote for the president, rather than his party. This is not so. Electors do still vote for the party, not the man. How else can the mystery of Sir Patrick Cormack's presence in the Commons be explained? Very few MPs have a personal following in their constituency in excess of a thousand votes, and though the character of the party leader always has some bearing on the election, it is not the overriding factor. In any event, this modish "presidential" business is not new. Harold Wilson, than whom it is difficult to think of anyone looking less presidential, was credited with importing it from the US 30 years and more ago. Does anyone seriously believe it worked for him? For Mr Major to play the presidential card now, simply because he is more popular than his party, smacks of desperation.

Older hands in the Parliamentary Labour Party are predicting that the election will be much closer than Blair's current opinion poll lead, which is stuck in the high teens. The received wisdom is that Labour will be back with a majority of around 30. Even that figure is likely to bring about the biggest changeover at Westminster since the Attlee landslide in 1945. With retirements and Tory losses, there could be as many as a 150 new members this spring. Such a gravity shift will not only stretch the House policemen's memory to the limit but the patience and organising skill of the whips.

According to the New Labour Guide from DPR Publishing, there are some rum 'uns among Labour's Class of '97. Predictably, there will be more local councillors. They have done well out of "one member, one vote" reforms. More will have a public school education, and practically four out of five have a degree. There are fewer trade unionists, but more professional political apparatchiks and many more women. Thankfully, fewer journalists figure in the likely intake.

One candidate in with a chance offers allotment gardening, Ealing films and comic books as his recreations. Another claims to be a juggler, while one lists "laughing at Tory Party misfortunes". He could well be laughing on the other side of his face ere long. Old Labour is still alive in the parliamentary Labour party, just waiting to kick. Two candidates find their relaxation in pubs, and one brave lady admits that "talking" is her recreation. Alas, we are never likely to hear her.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.