In every election campaign the world turns upside down. Ministers and shadows grovel before voters in their moment of power. The limelight shines briefly on outsiders and eccentrics. This time they included the Christian Tory candidate who exorcises gays (plainly with little success), Labour’s Elvis imitator (alive and well and living in Downing Street), that real-life Ena Sharples from Coronation Street and the courtly Lord Pearson rising charmingly above his inability to handle rude questions about Ukip policy. Anyone of spirit relishes this reversal of fortune. Surrounded by moguls at Jimmy Goldsmith’s 1987 election party, Frank Johnson remarked: ‘It would be almost worth a Labour victory to see these people rushing for the phone.’ I miss it already.
Ten days ago I was a guest at a Budapest election party celebrating the mother of all landslides. Power, optimism and confidence were all around. Yet Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz conservatives, had just inherited an economic wasteland. Orbán himself explains some of this paradox. He was a moderately successful prime minister who unexpectedly lost an election — but then fought his way back to power. As one diplomat said: ‘He’ll make mistakes, but not the same mistakes.’ He can also promise four years of stability — and maybe more. With the implosion of the left in Hungary (and earlier Poland), the political order established in 1989 is changing. The shadowy post-communist networks of oligarchs and intelligence agencies look shaky. Orbán’s ‘broad church’ of economic conservatives, social traditionalists and, ahem, nationalists looks formidable. Socialists and Liberals treat any expression of patriotism in central Europe as galloping xenophobia. But the IMF is likely to regard Orbán’s moderate nationalism as a necessary support for the sacrifices that economic reform will demand of Hungarians. If Orbán gets the looser IMF package he seeks, at age 46 he’s on course to be the region’s elder statesman.
In two elections I played the game, first as Tory candidate for Gateshead West in 1970. Because Gateshead was ‘hopeless’, my constituency workers canvassed elsewhere, leaving me an agent, the formidable Mrs Moreland, some nice middle-aged ladies stuffing envelopes, and a friend from work, ‘Tony’, who helped me work the better streets. Tony was formidably handsome and put his canvassing to good use. In addition to getting a series of ‘dates’, he arranged our invitations to a late-night party given by local nurses. I wasn’t nervous until I found myself following Tony over a locked gate and entering the nurses’ home via a window. Men were not admitted after 10.30 p.m. Nothing happened, as the saying goes; we sat around drinking gin in a strained manner, while I imagined headlines such as ‘Tory Candidate Arrested in Hospital Orgy’. But later Tony became a prison governor. I’ve often wondered what his prison was like. I don’t think Tony’s canvassing was the reason I got the second largest Labour-to-Tory swing in 1970. But a dozen years later my Labour opponent, victorious but discouraged, left first the Labour party, then the SDP, and ended his parliamentary career as a loyal Tory backbencher. Because I lost the election, I ended up in Downing Street. I wrote the 1987 Tory manifesto and helped with the Prime Minister’s speeches. No one, incidentally, wrote speeches for Mrs Thatcher; one wrote speeches with Mrs Thatcher, generally through five drafts. She had two rules. She insisted on checking every fact and she demanded simple, clear language that made sense to ‘Mrs Gubbins’ — her mental picture of the ordinary voter. If the first rule was violated, she explained, she would pay dearly for any mistake twice weekly at Prime Minister’s Questions — forever. If the second, she would pay at the ballot box. I thought of her prudence when I read Nick Cohen’s splendid fulmination in the current Standpoint about the refusal of the party leaders to discuss the economic crisis or the sacrifices required of voters honestly. They have not so much lied as evaded, but on a massive scale. For two of the three leaders, this evasiveness won’t matter. They won’t be Prime Minister. For the third it is a short-sighted policy since he’ll be cross-examined about all his evasions every PMQs — forever.
Gordon Brown met his Mrs Gubbins in Gillian Duffy. As someone who grew up in Lancashire and canvassed half of Gateshead, I’ve met hundreds of Mrs Gubbinses. They are guardians of a working-class respectability that even now has not been completely sneered away. So when Mrs Duffy gave media interviews, her bigotry turned out to be pride that her husband never used bad language. Her sharpest complaint? Brown had called her ‘that woman’ rather than ‘that lady’. I find that endearing and so might Brown. But what would Harriet Harman think? Or Theresa May? ‘Lady’ may be actionable abuse under the former’s Equality Bill or the latter’s ‘Contract for Equalities’ (which I first thought a clever Ukip forgery). Media coverage has stressed its half-promise of ‘gay marriage’, but it’s a manifesto for state intrusion into everything, gender quotas in business, national mentoring programmes, more social workers etc, etc. Frank Johnson again: ‘They aren’t allowed to nationalise companies any more, so they nationalise people instead.’