This is an election for bullshitters. It’s brilliant. Time was, as a young idiot working in newspapers, you might be afraid of opening your mouth and making loud and lofty predictions about the shape of the next government. Now it’s fine. You might not know much, but nobody else does either. You can talk and talk and talk, and it’s very hard for anybody to say, with any sort of confidence, that you are entirely wrong.
You see, this industry is dominated, some would say unfairly, by people who actually know stuff. They might have an intimate knowledge of the swings of the elections of 1923, 1974 and 1974 again. Or they might understand polling. Present them with eight shopkeepers from Penrith who’ve gone off tax credits and they can extrapolate to tell you how a schoolteacher might vote in Bognor Regis. The thing is, all this is predicated on the understanding that there are vast numbers of people who wouldn’t think of voting for a Liberal Democrat because they didn’t know what one was. Now, all that has changed. Or it might have done. Who knows?
It’s grandiose, and frankly quite offensive, but I keep thinking of 9/11. ‘The kaleidoscope has been shaken,’ said Tony Blair, back when he was still pretending he didn’t necessarily want to invade Iraq. ‘The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.’ Unfamiliarity is a great leveller. This is a Ground Zero for political opinion. Or, at least, it might be. The fact that nobody knows for certain is the whole point.
Now, there are various ways in which one can exploit this situation. Socially at least, I enjoy the irresponsible approach. Normally I’m quite reluctant to give an opinion when friends ask me about politics, in case they turn on the telly half an hour later and somebody like Nick Robinson is on, irrefutably making it plain I’ve been nonsensically winging it. But these days you don’t need to worry about that, because he’s as much in the dark as anybody else. So you can say anything, and sound brilliantly informed.
One strategy is to just declare something, at random, and then think of a way to justify it. ‘The BNP will be the real winners,’ I told a friend of the wife the other day, just to see if I could get away with it. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘But Nick Robinson said the third parties were getting squeezed out by the surge in Lib Dem support.’ ‘Pah,’ I retorted. ‘You don’t want to listen to that old fraud. No, he’s quite wrong. You see, a hung parliament will lead to voting reform, which will lead to PR, which will lead to Britain’s extremist parties holding the balance of power in a similar manner to the ultra-Orthodox in the Israeli system.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, sounding genuinely impressed.
It could even be true. I haven’t a clue. Another good mental exercise is to ask people how they are going to vote, and then tell them that if that is really what they are after, they should do the complete opposite. ‘You like the idea of a hung parliament? Well then don’t vote for the Lib Dems, for God’s sake. Because you’ll get one, briefly, but then Labour will schism and a new party will form made up of Lib Dems, rightish Labour and leftish Tories, and they’ll be in power for a generation.’ Variants on this argument have allowed me to maintain that only a vote for the Tories can ensure that public services don’t get cut, and that the only way of being entirely sure that Ed Balls doesn’t end up as Chancellor is by voting Labour.
The ‘future leaders’ game is also fun. To sound truly knowledgeable, the trick is to think of somebody whose profile, thus far in the election, has been surprisingly low. ‘Obviously, Hague/Harman/Davis/Flint/Hughes/Hain is just biding his/her time,’ you should confide, in a manner that appears to presume prior agreement. This works particularly well if you accidentally find yourself speaking to somebody who believes they actually know something about politics, and hasn’t yet grasped the new central truth that, these days, nobody does. Other good phrases in such a situation include, ‘Europe will be a spanner in the works’, ‘well really he’s the David Miliband of the XXXX party,’ (which works with any party but sounds delightfully arch if XXXX is Labour), and the old perennial ‘ah, but what about Mandelson?’
Like I said, mainly these are just tactics for showing off in the pub. But, now I think of it, they probably work just as well if you have to write an opinion column or go on Newsnight. Good old Nick Clegg and his shiny tie.
Not enough costumes in this election. From the mainstream, we’ve had only the Daily Mirror’s chicken stalking the Conservatives, who rather lost his dignity when David Cameron pulled off the chicken head and said ‘but why are you a chicken?’ on live TV, and the remains of the chicken couldn’t think of a decent answer. I suppose there was also the Conservative supporter in a John Prescott mask who attacked John Prescott, but that does seem to be stretching the definition somewhat.
The BNP deserves special mention in this for, at the last count, having at least two costumes in prominent use. There’s the man who follows Nick Griffin everywhere dressed as a soldier, despite actually being a design and technology teacher from Spennymoor, but my favourite was the fat bloke dressed as St George, who stood there sweating in his cardboard armour while the boss launched the BNP manifesto. That was brilliant, Nick. Totally got the message across. You guys should all wear costumes, all the time. Please.
Sadly, I just don’t think it’s going to be that sort of election. Although as I write this, somebody dressed as Peppa Pig has just pulled out of appearing at a press conference with Yvette Cooper. Do you know Peppa? She’s on TV. Kids love her. Face like a schoolboy’s drawing of genitalia. Apparently she’s appeared with Yvette’s old man a few times, supporting Sure Start centres, but pulled out of this event when she realised it was party political. It’s nice to see that cartoon pigs realise Britain isn’t a one-party state, even if the Cabinet Secretary isn’t so sure.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 1, 2010