The plan was to boost Clegg, take the gilt off the Cameron gingerbread, and wreck Tory hopes of achieving a majority government
what you will never succeed in doing, either in Britain or in any other political environment, is creating three-party politics
But look at what is happening to Labour! Look at the great humming, purring spin machine that propelled the People’s Party to three election victories and humiliated a succession of Tory leaders. They are doing worse than under Kinnock. They are down to levels not seen since M Foot appeared in his donkey jacket; and with H Harman’s teeth locked in Mandy’s throat we are beginning to detect the gurgling sound of meltdown.
All of a sudden an enthralling possibility is opening before our eyes: that the cunning Labour plot to boost Nick Clegg has been the most hideous miscalculation since their 1983 manifesto. I have it on good authority, you see, that the puffing of Clegg – all that ostentatious “I agree with Nick” stuff from Gordon Brown in the first debate – was entirely deliberate. In agreeing to the debates, Labour thought it had spotted what the Tory high command had missed: that if you put Clegg and Cameron simultaneously before the nation, and the electorate saw two vaguely similar products – telegenic 43-year-old public schoolboys with an air of deep reasonableness – then all at once the Tories would lose their Unique Selling Point.
They would stop being the sole proprietors of the message emblazoned on every Conservative poster in Britain. They would cease to be the party of “change” – or at least they would cease to be the only possible party of change, because at every turn they would have to contest that title with the newly prominent Lib Dems.
The plan was to boost Clegg, take the gilt off the Cameron gingerbread, and wreck Tory hopes of achieving a majority government. With the Lib Dems surging, the Tories would be forced to rethink their plans of taking all those West Country seats. The mountain would become too high to climb, at which point Bob’s your uncle and Gordon’s still your Prime Minister.
But as the first burst of Cleggmania starts to subside, and as the first postal vote exit polls give a sign of what may actually happen in 10 days’ time, it looks as though Labour – not the Tories – may be the big losers from the frenzy they helped to create. Because the Tories are still up on 35 or 36 per cent in the polls – roughly where they were before Cleggmania began; the Lib Dems are on 31 or 32 per cent; and Labour is right down on 26 per cent, or as little as 24 per cent.
Time after time, Labour is coming third in these polls, and with that kind of distance now opening up between Labour and Tories, we are right back where we started at the beginning of the campaign – with David Cameron still possibly on course for a decent and perhaps even a thumping majority.
What matters, you see, is the distance between Labour and Tories, because most of the decisive seats of this election will be straight fights between the Government and the Opposition; and it makes no difference how many extra votes the Lib Dems pile up in third place. It doesn’t matter if they start to run Conservatives a bit closer in safe Tory seats. What matters is the swing from Labour to Conservative, and with a lead over Labour of 9 or 10 per cent, that swing could well be enough to kick Gordon Brown into orbit.
Mandelson’s mistake – if such it indeed proves to be – was to think that Clegg could somehow be promoted without damage to Labour. Of course, it is possible to “break the mould” of British politics, and that certainly happened when Labour replaced the Liberals, at the beginning of the last century, as the main opponents of the Conservatives.
But what you will never succeed in doing, either in Britain or in any other political environment, is creating three-party politics. Politics is essentially binary, because there will always be governments and oppositions, and it will always be the case that you are either for something or against it. From the optimates and populares of republican Rome to the Democrats and Republicans of modern America, societies have tended to crystallise their political debates into two broad sets of views, and there are always two coalitions of politicians who represent those views, and most human beings – often from quite an early age – tend to identify with one set of views rather than another.
In the words of Gilbert and Sullivan, “Every little boy and girl/That’s born into this world alive/Is either a little Liberal/Or else a little Conservative”. In modern Britain, there is a coalition that believes on the whole in free enterprise and strong national institutions, and those views are generally expressed by the Tories; and then there is a big Left-liberal group that is instinctively happier with higher taxes, more regulations and the proliferation of road humps. For decades that Left-liberal group has been dominated by the Labour Party, and the sensational event of the past few weeks is that Labour is being eclipsed on the Left.
Here, in the Lib Dems, is the party that opposed the Iraq war, that wants to scrap our nuclear deterrent and wants a socking new tax on houses – all solid leftie causes. The more excitement and publicity they generate, the more life they suck out of the Labour Party, and the more hopeless is Gordon Brown’s position. If this goes on at the current rate, with the Tories about five points ahead, and Labour well back in third, we could not only see an absolute Tory majority; we could see the implosion of Labour, with the Lib Dems replacing them as the natural centre-Left alternative to the Tories, and everyone will be saying how brilliant it was of David Cameron to agree to those TV debates.
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