After the horse-trading comes the honeymoon. But first, the press conference. Obviously. What’s the use of having cameras if you can’t play to them?
We got a new government the other night. Conveniently, we got it in Prime Time, which is so much more user-friendly than calling the result of an election at 4am when nobody’s watching, unless you happen to be trying to watch EastEnders. Our long (or rather, long-weekend) national nightmare is over, at least for this week.
Certainly, the air is full of talk of optimism, cooperation and compromise. We have a coalition government for the first time in, ooh, yonks. The Tories and Lib-Dems have hammered out a coalition agreement that, essentially, smooths out the most controversial sections of each manifesto into a frothy milkshake of moderate policy goodness. Except it might be laced with arsenic. It’s a brave new world, apparently.
And yet… let’s flashback for a moment, to May 2nd 1997. Depending on whether your sympathies lay with Labour or the Tories, that morning marked either the beginning of an era or the end of one. It was the end of more or less exactly 17 years of Tory government. First-time voters had no memory of any other political party ever having been in power, That morning, whichever side of the fence you were on, it really was a brave new world. Change was in the air, and all over the newspapers, and on every TV channel (granted, for most of us, in 1997 there were only four or five of those, rather than the forty gazillion we have today). When I went out, I could feel it. We could all feel it. However much our perspective might have changed, however much history might now view Blair and his government as having been horribly flawed, that morning there was something new in the air.
I didn’t quite get that today. Now, possibly that’s because I was living in Canada for most of the Blair years, so I only viewed them from a distance, whereas I experienced the full horror of Thatcher and Major (I vividly remember the day Thatcher was forced out of office – I was home sick from school, and I watched the whole thing on TV). But still – same party in power for 13 years, first-time voters once again probably can’t remember anyone else ever having been in power, we have a coalition government for the first time in decades, and it’s supposedly a decisive shift away from the adversarial two-parties-and-a-runner-up system we’ve known and barely tolerated for as many elections as any of us can recall… if Britain on May 2nd 1997 felt like a newly-minted country that had undergone a decisive paradigm shift, surely that should also have been the case on May 12th 2010. But it wasn’t.
There was no theme tune by D:Ream this time around, for which relief much thanks, but there was no great sense of triumph anywhere either, as far as I can see. The brutal truth is that nobody won, so instead of a parade we got a carefully stage-managed spectacle designed to show us all that we’re all winners, even though we probably aren’t, in a press conference in the garden behind Number 10 that contained more fake bonhomie than every television programme Bruce Forsyth ever made rolled into a single nightmarish whole.
There’s something deeply peculiar about watching two people who a week ago had a death-grip on each other’s throats acting like they’re BFF in front of a garden full of journalists. Clegg and Cameron are both smooth TV performers, and we all know that relations between politicians from opposite sides of the house are rarely as frosty as they may seem during, say, micromanaged TV debates or Prime Minister’s Question Time; even so, the smiles seemed to be superglued in place. The overall effect was something like watching Siamese twins who don’t like each other much mugging their way through a rendition of Conrad Birdie’s biggest hit, only without the quiff and the fainting teenage girls. They even managed to laugh off a question about something evil Cameron said about Clegg during the campaign (Q: What’s your favourite joke? A: Nick Clegg. An oldie, not a goodie). They were each doing their best impression of being Honestly Sincere, and they very nearly got away with it. Neither of them pulled a knife, and the Modroc grins held firm.
Except, of course, what we were watching wasn’t quite what it seemed. The extended Cameron-Clegg PDA wasn’t simply about solidifying a coalition agreement in front of the cameras. Here were two men fighting for their political futures, in the full knowledge that those futures may be startlingly brief. Compromise politics are something we’re going to have to get used to, and that’s a good thing if we can get it right, but long-term inter-party cooperation has not been a major recurring theme in Britain’s political history. When there’s an overall majority on one side of the house or the other, the first-past-the-post system means that our politicians rarely have to make nice to their opponents. The best-case scenario, in this instance, is probably the best possible outcome of this unwinnable election: a stable government, with the worst excesses of a Tory administration sanded down and counterbalanced by at least some parts of the Lib Dem reform package, a combination that, if it works, should be more palatable to the progressive majority than one-party Tory rule.
But it may not work, and if it fails there will be consequences for both Cameron and Clegg. Cameron should have been able to secure an outright majority, but he didn’t. Clegg has taken his party to bed with an opponent that his grassroots members do not trust. Labour, sidelined in the coalition negotiations, are regrouping and shopping for a new leader, and hopefully have the basic common sense to make it not be Ed Balls, although Prime Minister Balls would undoubtedly be a priceless comedy gift for the ages. Nobody wants another election, but Cameron will have to go to the country if the coalition fails. In that event, the likeliest outcome is that both the Tories and the Lib Dems will be punished at the polls; the likely result of that is that Cameron and Clegg would spend the duration of the next parliament in Siberia, or at least on the back benches. These are relatively young men, and their careers would recover from that kind of five-year blip; William Hague has managed to bounce back from his spectacular electoral crash-and-burn in 2001. But that can’t be the trajectory either man has mapped out for himself.
And, away from the grotesquely bucolic scene in the Downing Street garden, the cracks were already beginning to show. Clearly the acting coaches hadn’t quite managed to fit everybody in since the coalition negotiations were concluded the night before. When the BBC asked Vince Cable about his new job as a minister in the coalition cabinet, the pause before he answered was almost Pinteresque. The pause, indeed, was more eloquent than the stammered answer that followed, and there lies the problem. Cameron and Clegg are media-savvy political operators. They know how to tap-dance for the camera. Cable, for all his considerable skill, really is honestly sincere, and honest sincerity may not be the best quality when it comes to negotiating the delicately choreographed dance of mutual compromise that lies ahead.