Christina Patterson: Cameron & Clegg - consensual, civilised... depressing

So here we have it. The New Politics. Young, smart, male, white, rich and nearly all privately educated. What more could they have in common?

Thursday 13 May 2010 00:00 BST

In his dreams, it can't have been like this. In his dreams, it was cheering crowds, tears of joy, hands clasped in gratitude, and waves of sheer, blessed, joyous relief that the people had seen the light, and a new age had dawned, and God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. (The God, that is, who keeps the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate and who, when it came to ordering estates, made damn sure that one of them didn't get North Peckham.) In his dreams, it wasn't, as quaintly emerged in the last moments of the Today programme yesterday, "Newsflash: handshake with Cameron and Clegg."

The man whose ambition was, according to one of his prep school teachers, evident even when he was playing a rabbit in the school pantomime, and who, in his early teens, informed friends at Eton that he would lead the Conservative party, and who was so confident of a majority that three hours before polls closed on Thursday, he authorised one of his aides to call Downing Street with a list of civil servants who would have to go, had a few hairy days.

Ditching the victory speech he had no doubt been preparing from his first day at Heatherdown Preparatory School, he had instead on Friday to deliver a performance that might have challenged a de Niro (might even have challenged the Blair to whom he hoped to be heir), one that sounded humbled, but not cowed, steely, but not pissed off, flexible, but not spineless, keen, but not desperate. The words – "stable government", "big open offer" – said one thing, but the eyes said another. Cool, unblinking, the colour of cardboard, the eyes said "whatever it takes".

We didn't need to be told by an unnamed friend over the weekend that Cameron was "hungry for power". I think the friend meant it as a compliment. Like those CVs that all start with an identical statement about being "an ambitious self-starter", or those budding entrepreneurs on telly who boast to Surralan about their ruthlessness, "hunger for power" is the new prerequisite for entrance to the political game. Not the hunger itself, of course, which is as old as humanity, as old even as David Cameron's Tory lineage, but the assertion of it. For the new breed of politicos and their friends, it's no more embarrassing to be "hungry for power" than for a nice piece of cake.

If Cameron was hungry, Clegg, it swiftly became clear, was ravenous. With a pitiful performance at the ballot box (as opposed to the one in people's sitting rooms, which everyone thought would change the world but didn't) you might argue that he might fancy it, but didn't really deserve it, but rules are rules, and the rules of this giant board game invented by boys for boys meant that it was his turn to throw the dice. And he didn't so much throw it as toss it, twirl it, and keep it rotating in the air until he knew that it would land with a six. Well, five, actually. Five Cabinet posts, including Clegg's own as Deputy Prime Minister. Five out of 59 MPs elected! And a third of Lib Dem MPs with ministerial posts! Now that, boys and girls, is power-mongering.

Clegg, who, pre-Miriam, acquired almost as many notches on his bedpost as he now has government posts for his party, knows a thing or two about dating. Treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen, and he did. Wined, dined and showered with gifts by one, he still skulked off for tea and cakes with the other, announcing that he was a bit confused right now, and didn't want to be pressured into making a commitment. Cameron, who could have sulked, but knew the stakes were high, pulled one final giant rabbit out of a hat and then, like a benign uncle whose patience is beginning to wear just a little bit thin, announced that perhaps it was time for the young man to make up his mind.

And then, in the middle of all this, another man who had been so hungry for power that he had plotted and schemed and sulked his way into No 10, and stayed there, long after it was clear that it was in the interests of his party to go, suddenly decided to give it up. He'd tried, my God he'd tried, to save the party, save the country, save the world, but he couldn't compete with the gimmicks, the promises and, in the end, the arithmetic. So he called for his sword, well, ok, a microphone, and you feel he might have topped himself right there on the steps of Downing Street if he hadn't suddenly remembered that his other unelected job was as a father and husband and so, clutching the accoutrements of that other job, he left.

Perhaps he'd hoped that Cameron would be caught off guard, and forced to go to Buckingham Palace in a Steve Hilton-like ensemble of ripped jeans and T-shirt, but Cameron is almost never caught off guard. It's not clear whether the make-up artist he employed for his TV debate appearances was involved, but when he stepped into the car that would take him to the Palace, he looked sleek and shiny and ready. It was only when he emerged from the Palace, the deal sealed and documented in a nice photo , and when someone yelled out "Prime Minister!", that he finally allowed himself a smile. On the steps of Downing Street, he hid it. "I believe in public service," he said, as if he'd just landed a job as a ward auxiliary. Well, you can't really say on the steps of Downing Street that what you believe in is power.

So, here we have it. The New Politics. Tweedle-Cam and Tweedle-Clegg. Yesterday, radio interviewers squawked their excitement at the fact that the negotiations between the two parties had gone "so well". "It sounds as though they liked each other," gasped one. Well, why wouldn't they? Young, smart, male, white, rich and nearly all privately educated. What more could they have in common?

The boys have done well. I have to say, the boys have done well. At yesterday's joint press conference (which, as a Radio 5 commentator pointed out, looked like a civil partnership ceremony) they both looked smart and spoke nicely. Their parents must be proud. The one in the blue tie did gravitas. The one in the yellow tie did sparkle. I suspect that the one in the blue tie might tire of that sparkle, and the one in the yellow tie might find composing his face during some of that gravitas (particularly when it comes to Europe and "nutters") a bit of a struggle, but I'm sure they'll do their best.

This is pretty much what we voted for. It's consensual. It's civilised. It's grown-up. So why do I feel so depressed? It's not just because the Tories, though shackled, are back. And it's not just because the "new politics" is beginning to look an awful lot like the old politics, just politer, posher and younger. And it's not just because the only non-male member of the cabinet is most famous for her leopard-print shoes. It's because I still have no idea at all why most of them are there.

On Tuesday night, Cameron received a phone call from Barack Obama. Perhaps he imagined the moment in 18 months when he could tell him about his triumphs – his equivalents of healthcare reform, cuts in nuclear power, progress in the Middle East. Perhaps, but I really doubt it. When I think of Obama, and what we've got, I could weep.

For further reading

'Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative' by Francis Elliott and James Hanning

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