Do you want to know who really won out of this election?
British politics is hard to fathom, even for the people inside it. There’s bluff and counter-bluff, double-bluff and counter-double-bluff, and that’s just the stuff that beginners do.
Labour was all for saying that it was going to be very close — they didn’t want their voters taking anything for granted. But on the night John Prescott was saying that the exit poll was exaggerated, and they would do much better than expected. On the other hand, the Tories were all for saying that they were winning the argument, and would beat the pollsters yet.
A good way, then, to cut through the triple-bluff, is to look at what the winners and losers actually do.
And what they are doing is calling for their leaders to go. Or to stay.
Howard knows he has to go. He’s too old, and he said he would go if he didn’t deliver. Forget the question of keeping promises. A man who says he will go and doesn’t loses credibility.
So why are Tories calling for him to stay?
Blair knows he has to stay. He fought the election with the promise that he would lead the country for a full third term. Perhaps it wasn’t the right strategy, but he said it all the same. But with a majority of sixty-six, he’s getting vulnerable. It ought to be an enormous victory — the first time Labour has got a third term.
So why are Labour backbenchers spoiling the party by asking for him to go?
If you come out of a fight victorious, you come out with renewed confidence.
If you come out of an election victorious, you don’t start bickering about who the leader is or isn’t. You don’t dither about whether he should go or he should stay.
The fact is, the election shook both Labour and the Tories.
It shook the Tories because all they could manage was 33 more seats. Labour may have an absolute majority of 66, but they have a majority of 159 over the Tories. What’s worse, the Tories have emerged as a party of the South-East of England. That’s an easy enough spread to defend, but a dreadful base for winning new seats.
It shook Labour because despite the complete failure of the Tories to come up with a fighting platform, their own majority is reduced to the point where they have to rely on the rebels. There are more than thirty-three Labour MPs who are ready to vote against the government. Publicly Labour may say that a smaller majority unifies the party. But we don’t have to look too far back in history to give that one the lie. John Major’s party tore itself to pieces. Labour did the same in living memory.
It’s for both parties to ask themselves the questions that they should have answered years ago. How much do they really want to run the country? What will they give up? Cherished Euroskepticism for the Tories, along with precious dreams of tax-cutting? Tuition fees, foundation hospitals and international adventures for Labour?
But the Tories are in the worse position. They don’t have anybody who looks like he (or she) could be party leader. Labour has Gordon Brown in the wings, with Alan Milburn and one or two others if Brown decides not to take the plunge.
At the end of the day, only one mainstream party came out of this election with new confidence and without questions about his leadership.
You don’t really need me to spell out which one, do you?
No, I thought not.