This is the first general election since 1997 where I have not primarily been employed as a journalist, covering the story of the campaign and its participants. Of course, I’ve still been writing about it, but from a certain distance. I miss some of the peculiar entertainments of the political circus, and some of the freaks and wild animals that provide those entertainments. But by and large, it’s rather nice to be watching things from a little way off.
Especially because that distance allows me to say things like this: a lot of journalists, and a lot of politicians (especially Conservative ones) have gone stark raving mad and are talking gibberish about this election.
I know why, of course. Campaigns create madness. The days are longer and the pressure greater. This is a Big Story, one of the biggest. Yet there is no story. Campaigns are boring, sinfully dull. Yet if nature abhors a vacuum, journalism absolutely fricking loathes one, and simply cannot permit one to exist. News is a beast that must be fed, and its hunger never ends. ‘Not much that matters happened today’ is not a story, and ‘Nothing has changed’ is not a headline. Especially in the midst of a Big Story. Feed the beast. Feed the beast.
That ceaseless, remorseless hunger does funny things to people. Simply, it drives them a bit loopy. Hence journalists and politicians who in their hearts and in their guts know what the election result will be are spending time and energy talking about the things that won’t happen.
To be clear, here’s what will happen, and what the vast majority of journalists and politicians expect to happen. The Conservatives will win. Theresa May will be returned as PM with a Commons majority of between 50 and 100. Labour will lose, but lose well enough for Jeremy Corbyn to stay on as Labour leader, thus condemning that party to yet another internal conflict that might, just, lead to a formal split.
Think that scenario over carefully. Theresa May will be a Conservative PM who won more than 40 per cent of the vote, secured a solid Commons majority and who faces a leader of the Opposition who is derided by many voters and whose authority is questioned by most of his own MPs.
By no reasonable interpretation can that outcome be described as bad for Mrs May or the Conservative Party. It is a scenario that was beyond the wildest dreams of her predecessor. David Cameron missed a Commons majority in 2010 and, in 2015 expected to lose to Ed Miliband, but scraped home with a majority of 12. Mrs May will next week beat that comfortably, and exceed Mrs Thatcher’s 1979 majority of 43.
And yet some of my old chums in the world of hackery are telling a story of how that would be something close to disaster for Mrs May. She mismanaged expectations; it is said, allowing Tories to dream of a three-figure majority. She has destroyed her personal brand with voters, it is claimed, with a U-turn on social care (which polls suggest more voters liked than lamented). She has lost her authority over her party: having been a god-like queen-empress to Tories, she is now a busted flush and will return as John Major in dress. Horlicks, all of it. Hot, steaming Horlicks.
In the closing days of the Tory leadership contest last year, I was still a hack and doing what hacks do: gossiping with politicians. Doing my rounds of regular contacts in various bits of the party, I was struck by the utter lack of enthusiasm for Mrs May. Several MPs told me she was dull, wooden, uninspiring. ‘The safe, boring choice, but no-none’s ever going to get excited about her’, said one.
When Mrs May, by accident and default, duly became leader, I then saw several of my contacts telling a rather different story, both publicly and privately. The author of that ‘safe, boring’ quote now serves in Mrs May’s government and has been a very excited advocate for her.
Cynical? Practical? Call it what you like. The brutal fact of politics is that victory is all that really matters. Politicians, and Tory politicians especially, are a pragmatic bunch when it comes to power and authority. When Mrs May leads the party to a solid victory next week, she’ll have both. I expect to see some of those who are now briefing anonymously (we hacks can generally recognise you, even when you don’t use your names, chaps) about the failings of the Tory campaign and the May team to heap public praise on their leader.
As for my former journalistic colleagues telling the story of Tory crisis and Labour surge, well, they’re just doing what they have to: there must be a story, a surprise, some tension. Off-record Tory jitters fit that bill, and it’s right that they should be reported, along with the fact that some of this ‘story’ is a CCHQ confection to galvanise voters. But these facts should be put in context. Mrs May, whatever her flaws, is on course to win; Britain has not fallen in love with Mr Corbyn, who has at best gone from being an utterly awful candidate to being a really, really bad one.
Perhaps for a few hacks there’s an element of vengeance here too. The May team have made few friends on the way up, so when it looks like they’re stumbling, why not give them an extra kick? But on the whole, they’re just doing their job. Feed the beast, feed the beast.