IT’S enough to make you nostalgic: oh for the days of wall-to-wall Covid coverage rather than wall-to-wall wallpaper. The endless bore-a-thon of the media’s eternal obsession with court politics is back: who’s up, who’s down; talk of leadership challenges; sleaze; a flailing, hapless opposition leader, disgruntled advisers; blah, blah, blah.
Those of us unlucky to have lived through the Blair years can be forgiven a sense of déjà vu: in 1997 and for a long time afterwards, the Right was in total despair. A charismatic Labour leader was elected with a massive majority and seemed to walk on water: very soon after taking office, New Labour was embroiled in a sleaze row arguably far more serious than Carrie’s redecoration costs, when it gave Formula 1 an exemption from its ban on tobacco advertising after a bung – sorry, donation – from Bernie Ecclestone to the tune of a million quid. Nothing happened. Blair and New Labour sailed effortlessly on at stratospheric levels of popularity. Despite being a formidable Commons performer, the Tory leader William Hague was widely reviled and mocked. Serious commentators even predicted the demise of his party, and the Conservatives were duly thrashed again at the next election.
It was during those fallow years that Matthew Parris coined my favourite political simile: he likened the relationship between political scandal and popularity to tipping gravel into a swamp. For a long time, the swamp consumes pile after pile, ton after ton disappearing into its murky depths. The bog appears bottomless, but one day a load, perhaps small in itself but standing on the vast accumulations beneath, breaks the surface.
The reason is that after giving a party a significant electoral mandate, most people switch off from politics for a considerable time. It is not, as anti-democratic elitists maintain, that people are stupid and apathetic, but that they quite reasonably understand that reform takes time, mistakes will be made and that it is best to let the politicians get on with it while they get on with their lives.
This does not, of course, fit the agenda of the media, who have column inches and broadcast segments to fill, dancing to the very short tune of the 24-hour news cycle. Moreover, many journalists, relying on as they do on sources in the governing party for future exclusives, are wary of being too hostile towards it. For all these reasons, being an Opposition leader during this period is a sorry affair: Keir Starmer, William Hague and the like may or may not be good at their jobs, but the narrative is nonetheless largely predetermined.
If it’s bad enough for Her Majesty’s Opposition, it is even worse for small insurgent parties fighting against the insurmountable odds of the British two-party-dominated system: dismal, almost non-existent poll ratings, catastrophic and humiliating election results, leaders mocked, smeared as extreme and at worst ignored – nothing seems to work. It would be only human to become demoralised, but it is during this vital period that the battle for the future of politics is won or lost.
It cannot be emphasised strongly enough that this battle is not for political office but political power – a different thing entirely. As regular readers of this site will know, a major theme is that our predominant political institution – the Tory party – is nothing more than a parasite: low agency, cynical, it has no ambitions beyond attaching itself to office at any cost, bending with the political wind. Expecting it to enact conservative policies out of a sense of conviction is a waste of time.
It follows that true power in British politics belongs to those who intimidate the wretched Tories most effectively into doing their bidding, as UKIP showed to spectacular effect. Apart from Brexit, UKIP and Nigel Farage’s great political legacy was to move what was once a very fringe mindset into the mainstream of strategic thought amongst the Right’s activist base. A decade ago, under ‘Call-Me-Dave’, Tory betrayal was met with both despair and genuine disappointment. In contrast, Johnson’s shenanigans are met with disgust but not surprise. Although hardly commented on in mainstream publications, this is a very big change and a very heartening one.
That will not, of course, save Laurence Fox, Richard Tice, David Kurten et al from short-term humiliation as they lead their respective parties over the top in the forthcoming elections. They will be hammered: the gravel is still very far from the top of the swamp. But all the time the mire shallows, shallows, and the trick is to build the political narratives now that will own the future once the stones break the surface. Sun Tzu’s maxim about every battle being won before it is ever fought is overworked but nonetheless true. The game is long, but the prize is great: take heart from that, you activists, and fight on.