Belfast Telegraph

Matthew Norman: Post-election mayhem on a scale unseen is now the most promising outcome

Flailing about for an historical precedent for the national mood as we await the general election, all I can manage is a Sunday evening in 1986.

That was the year of the Westland affair, in which an outwardly affable but lightweight Opposition leader had his boot on the throat of a shoutily authoritarian, borderline insane Prime Minister, and contrived to kick himself in the orchestras.

Yet despite that echo from down the years, not to mention the Hand of Gord (previously the Clunking Fist) reviving helicopters as a live political issue by dashing off to Helmand on the weekend while the military establishment stayed home to harmonise their chorus of "Liar Liar, Pants On Fire", Westland is not the precedent.

The evening in mind came almost six months after Neil Kinnock's windbaggery let a wriggling Mrs Thatcher off the hook. On 29 June, the nation (the English bit anyway; for the Scots this was paradise) prepared to watch the World Cup final from Mexico City between then West Germany and Argentina, gloomily aware of the imminent and inevitable tragedy that there had to be a winner.

This, it seems to me, is roughly where we are now, but with one delectable distinction. Praise the western world's loopiest electoral system, in this game both sides can lose. Judging by the latest polls, there's a fair chance that both will. The drift towards deadlock was observable long before yesterday's findings by Populus that the main parties are tied at 38 per cent apiece in the marginals. It's more complex than the headlines allow, the relevant seats numbering from 51-150 in the Conservatives' ranking of its key Labour targets. It ignores the 50 most easily won, in other words, as well as marginals where the Tories hope to unseat Liberal Democrats. Even so, this poll underlines the trend towards a photo-finish and that much debated but seldom seen beast, the hung parliament.

That the country would prefer the current parliament hung goes without saying, but thanks to the symptom of early onset political-correctness-gone-mad officially known as the Murder And Moat-Cleaning (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, this has not been possible.

What is perfectly possible is that on 7 May 2010, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron will have to delve into sporting precedent themselves, the yardstick being Alastair Campbell's heroic attempt, during his short-lived renaissance as rugby union's Comical Ali, to present the crushing defeats suffered by the 2005 British Lions in New Zealand as victories of a sort.

What sort of victory Gordon Brown could claim if the capricious gods of psephology decree a plague-on-both-your-houses dead heat, one can readily guess. "This is a shattering blow to the Tories," he'd tell us, checking his phone for a text message about the state of the latest putsch. "Cameron couldn't win despite the worst recession since that spat with the Greeks wrecked Trojan export markets ... the people have spoken, and what they have said is that they don't trust the Conservatives with the recovery ... time for a steady hand on the tiller, not for a novice ... It is therefore my intention to form a government."

As for David Cameron, he'd take a wildly divergent oratorical path. "This," he would declare, wondering how long the right of his party would let him and his gang survive, "is a shattering blow for Labour ... inflicted upon us the worst recession since Noah's flood decimated the Mount Ararat crop returns... lost the trust of the British people ... fragile recovery needs a fresh hand on the tiller, not a superannuated office bully...It is therefore my intention to form a government."

It is at this point that the true splendour of our alleged Constitution might be revealed. A couple of weeks ago, like Ashley Cole on being told Arsenal wouldn't pay him more than £55,000 a week, though not at the wheel of a Bentley, I swerved the car in shock on hearing an item on Radio 4. In the event of an electoral tie, this related, the best guide to procedure regarding asking the monarch for another dissolution is a 1950 letter to the editor of The Times from one Lord Simon, a former Lord Chancellor, in anticipation of a hung parliament (in the event Attlee won a tiny majority).

Once the ague faded, a serene ecstasy settled over me. To live in a land where vital constitutional issues can turn on a letter to a newspaper (Independent readers write only the wisest of missives, so we'll pass over the term "green ink") ... Knowing this, who will dispute Cecil Rhodes's claim that to be born here is to take first prize in the lottery of life?

Post-election mayhem on a scale unseen before is now not only the most attractive possible outcome but the most promising. Nothing will ever focus minds on the need for a written constitution if not a spectacularly farcical constitutional crisis arising from the lack of one. What we need is week after week, month after month, of maniacal scrambling in which ever more outlandish backroom deals are struck and then instantly fall apart, and with abortive coups and counter-coups launched on the hour every hour.

Asked why he named his repulsive stepson Nero, and not his nice son Brittanicus, as his successor, Claudius gnomically replied: "Let all the poison that lurks beneath the pond hatch out". Admittedly his masterplan posthumously to revive the Republic by reminding Rome of the unfettered horror of imperial rule wasn't a success, but at least he had a bash. After a prolonged period of chaos, in which the reduction of parliamentary democracy into a relentless game of clique-orchestrated power politics becomes unavoidably plain to even the least interested observer, constitutional reform might just become a populist issue.

And if not, so what? The Belgians managed fine for six months with no government at all, and in an age bereft of ideological and policy distinction what higher purpose does parliament have than to entertain an apathetic electorate, and offer it a warming sense of moral superiority?

Of the possibilities on offer, or at least those that can be imagined, the most alluring is that of Gordon dragooning Nick Clegg into propping him up, or trying to lead a minority government. The thought of him taking to the GMTV sofa to declare, "As I think everyone knows, Kate, I have always been a consensus politician. I went into politics to bring people together," and then bringing to bear his fabled delicacy in dealing with fragile and demanding egos, is irresistible.

This election could have been all but settled long ago. If David Cameron had replaced George Osborne with Ken Clarke after the former's misadventures on Corfu, and if the Cabinet had been something more than an exhibit on secondment from the London zoo invertebrates house and replaced Gordon last summer, it probably would have been.

Non-events, dear boy, non-events have conspired to bring us to this point, with the country staring in bored distaste at a leathery opportunistic PM it loathes but semi-trusts with the economy and a shinily opportunistic pretender it vaguely likes but trusts on nothing. If this collision between the movable object and the stoppable force is heading for the stalemate it deserves, you'd have to be a particularly rampant atheists not to discern a deranged form of divine providence in that.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph