12 December 2019
A Few Straws
By John Watson
“No, don’t do it, please don’t do it. Not that one. I know it is a big juicy button but really you should step away and not press it. Just put your hands down by your side and step backwards. Honestly, it would be best. Oh my god she has pressed it. Aargh.”
I don’t know whether those were the exact words of the top LibDem strategists when Jo Swinson apologised for her role in the coalition’s austerity decisions, which she now thinks went too far, but it easily could be. Actually she had no need to apologise at all. True, she was a minister in the Coalition government but she could have just said that she believed that they were right at the time and that you would have to be quite an economist to know whether things would have been worse without them, and that times having moved on some of them should be relaxed. That would have been an honest response and one which looked to the future and not the past. It would have fitted well with her resolute approach to the withdrawal of article 50. But apologising? Yes it is very British and fashionable at the moment but does it carry the smell of leadership? Did Napoleon apologise for his invasion of Russia? Did Bloody Mary apologise for losing Calais? Surely not. Mary died with the word “Calais” engraved on her heart but that is not quite the same thing. Poor Jo.
The week before a General Election is an empty one for a columnist. The media is full of statements by the protagonists and there is little to be gained from repeating them or adding to the huge volume of analysis. Polls come in and are analysed by specialists. There is little one can add to that either. Next week there will be a new government with new policies but we have to wait to see who it is and what those policies are before we can comment. Perhaps the most useful thing is to look at one or two of those straws which indicated the wind of the campaign and see what they reveal.
If Jo Swinson’s apology reveals her shortcomings as a campaigner, what about Boris Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed by Andrew Neil? The great pundit had his questions oven-baked and ready to go but, unlike the other party leaders, Boris shunned the encounter. No Prince, no Hamlet. The reasons for that are pretty obvious. Boris has an inconsistent political record and a complicated private life. An interview by Mr Neil would reveal a history of vacillation and unreliability together with a willingness to ditch principle for ambition. Everybody knows that, but the question remains as to whether by shunning that sort of exposure Boris wins or loses in the eyes of the electorate. It is hard to say. On the one side he can be described as running away from an embarrassing past. On the other his pitch is a broad-tented post-Brexit future. Why should he participate in an interview which will focus remorselessly in the past? Would subjecting himself to that be read as weakly surrendering the initiative? A difficult call and we will only know whether his decision was wise or not (if we even know then) this evening.
With Labour, rather a different question has been ducked and that is who will really control a new Labour Government. Mr Corbyn? Surely not. His campaigning has been surprisingly good but his intention of referring Brexit back to the electorate on a yet to be negotiated agreement makes him appear indecisive. Would he blow with the wind and, if so, what then? Would he be pushed aside by someone else as Andrew McIntosh was pushed aside by Ken Livingstone after the Labour victory in the first GLC election? Would it be McDonnell, Long Bailey or the ever sensible Kier Starmer? Who knows, but for the electorate to write a blank cheque is one thing; for them not to know who they are writing it to is quite another.
Nobody knows to what extent points of this sort matter and how they measure up against the general desire for reform and the wish to get out of Brexit Purgatory. The exit polls tonight should be the first indication. Actually, though, something will be determined before that. Will it be Sunderland or Newcastle Central which manages to get the votes counted first and win the race to announce the result?