Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
We have two prints by the Plymouth artist Brian Pollard lying against the bookcase in our spare room, both showing the solar eclipse of 1999, both carrying the old Devon interrogative “Where’s e’ to?” I’m hardly a native Plymothian, but Mr Keith (who is a sturdy son of Devon soil) assures me that a good translation of the question would be “Where is he?” or “Where has he got to?” It seems as good a question to ask of the party leaders as any, as conference season draws to its sticky end.
So: where’s e’ to, that Mr Miliband? It turns out that the pre-conference consensus – that Labour was going nowhere, fast – was as good as Ed could get. His party’s conference offered no fresh thinking on any topic, however mundane; just his tatty handful of retail offers – “Cheaper gas! More expensive houses! Thebankersthebankersthebankers!” These shop-worn pursuits, coupled with its dismal 35 per cent electoral “strategy”, are Labour’s only plan for power.
On the post-referendum Union: nothing (I wonder why). On Britain’s membership of the other Union, that European thing: nothing.
Worse, unforgiveably worse, on the deficit: absolute silence. Perhaps Mr Miliband, scion of an academically intense family, is a fan of the Tractatus: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent?
Or maybe he’s just clueless; leave that for Occam to decide. But here is a man who would be Prime Minister, whose conference provided the opportunity to make his mark as a leader, but who “forgot” to mention the deficit. That’s making a mark, alright, in the sense our cat makes her mark by vomiting on the carpet. Mr Miliband is transformed by his speech into an indelible stain of a word-picture: “The man who forgot the deficit [the one he helped to create].”
So where’s e’ to? Looking back at that dismal 35 per cent strategy with nostalgic regret, as such a poll rating telescopes away into history.
What about closer to home? Agree or disagree with his vision, Tory week stood out because of David Cameron’s Prime Ministerial (were you watching, Ed?) delineation of his next government’s agenda. It reminded me of Mrs Thatcher’s conference in 1986; every minister who spoke had plans. Plans for what he or she could achieve, freed of LibDem shackles! Hmm. We’ll come back to this.
The Lib Dems were the a-historical coda to the season. Good for them, for meeting in Glasgow: the one unionist party that put its conference where its money is (and fittingly, they moved their conference date to avoid a clash with the Scottish vote).
What did they discuss? Who can remember, at this distance of, oh, a day. A bit unfair: Mr Clegg’s (Coalition) commitment to improved mental health services within the NHS is more than welcome. But it’s hard to take the Lib Dem entity, that left/right pushmi-pullyou marriage of Liberals with Social Democrats, seriously: a YouGov poll on Tuesday showed that 48 per cent of the public expect the LibDems to “fade away” over the next ten years. That feels about right. Most of their leftist voters have gone home to Labour already (hence Mr Miliband’s dismal 35 per cent strategy). That leaves its left-ish MPs reliant on the residual, presumably centre-right, component of their 2010 vote. Good luck with that, as they say.
Is it too late for the smart ones, the Blue/Orange ones, the pension-and-welfare-reforming ones – the Liberals, that is – to get out? To sit, then stand, as independent Liberals, aligned with David Cameron’s Conservatives? Tories look upon the Lib Dem record since 2010 and shudder with anger, in particular because of the boundary review treachery. But the Liberal role in providing an anti-socialist majority government, at the depths of the country’s economic crisis, shouldn’t be forgotten – even as we lament all those Tory objectives set aside in the meantime.
Cecil Day-Lewis, the poet laureate, also wrote crime fiction under the pen name Nicholas Blake; and very good novels they are, too: his art glimmers through his criminal prose. One phrase he deploys with repetition is “The museum of false starts.” His protagonist detective, Nigel Strangeways, uses it both as a put-down for pretentious proto-hipsters, as well as to lament the wasted life of one, introverted, murderer.
The museum of false starts: not a bad description (boundary reform, welfare reform, Human Rights reform) of coalition, is it? But every government is a coalition – we’ve simply been more aware of it since 2010 than usual – and every government bequeaths two legacies: a body of effective (if it’s lucky) legislation, and that other, gloomier place: the museum of its false starts.
Where’s e’ to, that Conservative Party, as coalition draws to a close? Wiser, I think (hope?) We (pace Mark Reckless) have learned that you can’t always get what you want, and, better, that the sky doesn’t always fall in as a result.
Is it so terrible that we’ve had to spend a parliament thinking through ECHR reform, for example? I don’t think so, now, but at the height of the prisoner vote nonsense I’d have UKIP-ishly demanded that a Tory majority government act now, and snarled at anyone who suggested matters might not be as straightforward as abolishing Labour’s ill-headed Act.
The difference between Coalition-strengthened Cameron, and the ex-Brown minister Miliband, shall we say, is that Mr Cameron has visited the Museum of False Starts, and learned from its exhibits, while Mr Miliband appears to have set up permanent residence there. Where’s e’ to, that Mr Miliband? He’s busy! Watching his museum of false starts turn into a palace of dead ends.