By the time a politician stands up to give a speech, it has been briefed out, pre-butted, rebutted, shredded in print and spat out on TV. Politics has become a boring conveyor belt, meticulously organised and frankly dull. Focus-grouped and polled to death. The only unexpected drama comes when things get dirty — from verbal fisticuffs to the dark arts. But now even that is under threat. ‘I honestly believe that we need a new politics,’ said Brownite gruppenführer Tom Watson recently. ‘Service, love and compassion,’ dreams the man whose plotting brought down Blair. Reformed boot boy Watson embodies the startling emaciation of Westminster.
Another Labour hard man suspended his referendum tour of Scotland because the ‘organised mob’, also known as voters, called him names and threw eggs. According to Jim Murphy, tactics as old as politics itself were a shocking new low for Britain.
During a TV debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, pundits and politicians decried the fact that the moderator allowed the two to raise their voices. Heaven forbid they should show passion about the fate of the UK! At every turn someone is pouring too much lemonade in the Pimms of British politics, leaving us with only bland platitudes tweeted out by party leaders, and consensuses formed without so much as a punch thrown.
The compassionate caliphate has seized the highest offices in the land. Speaker Bercow moans ‘the public don’t like it’ when PMQs become at all rumbustious, oblivious to the fact that it’s the only half-hour of parliamentary action that gets a TV audience. Cheered on by the Mumsnet mafia, bed-wetting columnists and Ed Miliband’s media team, Bercow wants to outlaw heinous crimes like shouting, pointing, laughing and parliamentary sledging. The main event of the political week is being neutered. The political class are becoming prudish bores.
The progressive pansies claim that robust debate puts off female voters. But try telling defence minister Anna Soubry that the politics of attack is not for girls. It was she who pointed out that Nigel Farage ‘looks like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it’. Or what about Clare Perry, who caused splutters when she asked aloud who she had to blow to get a question in Parliament.
Glenda Jackson knows about fiery debate, hijacking the Common’s tribute session to Maggie Thatcher to declare that the Lady was not a woman ‘on my terms’. Jackson’s office got thousands of supportive emails, and far fewer critical ones. You have to wonder how many letters of derision the Speaker’s Office binned when they released a handful of public complaints about Commons rowdiness. Wet blankets hiding behind skirts.
Labour have been particularly whiny about the rough and tumble. After a series of embarrassing ‘leaked recordings’ appeared, the party had a sense of humour failure. It was obvious that these tapes had been made by Tory flacks infiltrating Labour events, but Labour said that ‘nasty’ Tories had ‘stepped over an unofficial mark to embark on subterfuge and entrapment’. Gulp! ‘We are looking at a complaint to the PCC. This goes beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour,’ said a spokesman.
No complaint was forthcoming, but in the same month a mysterious recording was ‘obtained’ by the Guardian of a Tory minister using ‘unusually forthright language’ about ethnic minorities. The Guardian also ‘obtained’ a recording of a health minister talking candidly about the NHS.
It’s nothing new; Piers Morgan recalls in his diaries being personally handed a tape of a top Tory going violently off message over lunch in 2002 — by Gordon Brown. A young Labour researcher recorded Howard Flight gobbing off about Tory tax plans during the 2005 election. He was sacked and deselected. The researcher? Well, John Woodcock MP ended up with a safe seat, and the Times hack to whom the tape was passed ended up as Miliband’s spin doctor, on the team that called such tactics ‘beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour’.
Following your political enemies around with a microphone or a video camera is a legitimate and noble pursuit. We should know what our politicians are saying behind closed doors to friendly crowds. We should know if that does not match their public rhetoric. But did Labour have to scream and scream until they were sick when they got played at their own game? He who lives by the concealed dictaphone… etc.
Anything remotely critical in politics is a ‘smear’ these days. But never forget: a smear is not a smear when it is the truth — secretly taped or otherwise. What they need to do is stop whining and get down in the gutter and bludgeon each other. I have zero sympathy for anyone complaining about the exposure of truth. Roll on 2015. According to the prosecco-sippers it will be the ‘dirtiest election ever’. Great news!
This is an extract from Spectator Life, available with The Spectator from Thursday.