The Plastic Hippo

May 10, 2010

Wanted: a fat lady to sing

Filed under: Politics — theplastichippo @ 3:38 pm

When Brunhilde at long last steps forward to deliver the final 10 minute aria in Gotterdammerung, even the most ardent lovers of Wagner breathe a sigh of relief. The electorate, like members of an audience at a Ken Dodd one-man-show trying to remember where they parked the car or what time the last bus went, have enjoyed the experience but now would like it to be over.

The days of shady political deals struck in smoke filled rooms are long gone and it`s difficult to imagine party grandees carving up power in a smoking shelter around the back of the Cabinet Office. But the horse-trading continues and there is much talk of progress and stability aimed not at the electorate, but at something called “the markets”. With a national deficit of an estimated £167billion, financial stability has got to be fairly high on the agenda if we are to avoid the wheels coming off as is happening in Greece. But it seems our politicians are more interested in placating the very people who created the mess in the first place rather than the folks who will be expected to pick up the bill.

Following the defeat of David Lloyd George in 1922 when divisions within the party consigned the Liberals to almost a century of obscurity, the only sniff of influence was during the last hung parliament in 1974 when Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson could not command a working majority. Jeremy Thorpe considered getting into bed with Edward Heath but the dalliance remained unconsummated over the issue of electoral reform, particularly proportional representation.

PR has been central to Liberal and Liberal Democrat policy for decades and the results from Thursday highlight the inherent unfairness of the first past the post system. Labour achieved 29% of the vote which translated into 258 parliamentary seats. The Liberal Democrats attracted 23% of the vote and were rewarded with 57 seats. Gordon Brown immediately offered a referendum on electoral reform but Cameron, having failed to secure the landslide predicted by Rupert Murdoch and in fear of the wrath of his paymaster Lord Ashcroft, is in no position to offer PR in a deal.

Rumours coming out of the smoking shelter suggest that Clegg may make compromises over PR but this will anger his party and may costs him his job. It is possible that the en pass might result in the removal of all three party leaders because grass-root memberships might consider that the inability to win a majority is a plague on all their houses. At this point “stability” ends up in the ashtray.

But it could just be that the Liberal Democrats have taken a peek into the consequences of opening the PR Pandora`s Box. If PR had been in place last Thursday, the situation would be even more unclear and this and future elections would be subject to the paralysis of wrangling, compromise and the absence of a credible mandate in the tough times ahead. More alarmingly, the likes of UKIP would be kingmakers and real bigots from the BNP would sit in the House of Commons.

The future is in the hands of Clegg. Minority governments do not last long and the party leaders` who were at each others throats last week and who are now attempting compromise and consensus in the national interest, are likely to be back in the bear-pit by October. A deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives makes most mathematical sense but the risk of being tainted by the inevitable train crash with George Osborne in charge of the economy and the abandonment of reform might rip the Liberals apart again. A deal with Labour would see the removal of Brown and a reliance on the support of all the other minor parties which, given the parlous state of affairs, is probably untenable.

Clegg may choose to cast himself as Seigfried, the slayer of dragons in the Niberlungen or as Parsifal, forever searching for a holy grail which, for whoever ends up occupying 10 Downing Street, might turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

***UPDATE***

An hour is a long time in British politics and Gordon Brown has now announced that he will step down. But the fat lady has yet to sing and this development only increases uncertainty and will lengthen the interregnum between governments.

Nick Clegg was very shrewd on the morning after the election to state that the Conservatives with the greatest share of the vote and more actual seats should have first crack at forming a minority administration. Ignoring what would seem to be a natural alignment between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with the coy smile of a coquette and the sly wink of a harlot, the message was; “Come and get me, boys”.

This could, of course, have been a bluff to frighten Labour into promising a referendum on voting reform and if it was, it worked. But it could be the case that Clegg is politically closer to David Cameron than he is to Gordon Brown and what seemed like a done deal was halted in its tracks when Liberal Democrat MPs had their say. The shift to an agreement with Labour could also be a double bluff intended to win fresh proposals from Cameron. There is still no sign of the fat lady and the dangerous game that Clegg is playing has resulted in Brown going and a Labour promise on reform and the possibility of Vince Cable becoming Chancellor under a new Labour PM. Nick Clegg knows a thing or two about PR, and not just the proportional representation kind.

No single party, individual or organisation won the 2010 general election, but there are plenty that lost it and with it, their credibility. All the political parties did badly apart from, perhaps, the Greens and the Alliance in Northern Ireland. Other too, lost it, sometimes literally. The BBC seem to think we elect Prime Ministers rather than MPs and spent a fortune on its election night coverage which was beset with technical disasters throughout and is the cost of placing a camera in a helicopter to give us a 15 second shot of a party leader arriving by car at a pub really justifiable?

The press was and is even more bonkers than usual with the Murdoch titles in particular becoming increasingly unhinged by the moment and Sky News reporters, desperate to keep their jobs, have resorted to shouting at people who disagree with what Rupert thinks. There is on YouTube, footage of a senior Sky “journalist” squaring up to Alistair Campbell in the hope that Murdoch will spare him from the cull that is bound to follow the defeat of the News International proprietor.

Brown is going and if Clegg sides with Labour, Cameron will be toast as well. Nick has to be very careful if he wants to stay as party leader because if he falls off the tightrope he is walking his only hope for future employment will be doing PR for Susan Boyle, currently recording her version of “It`s Over” by Roy Orbison.

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