So, it’s over. After six weeks that have felt much more like six months, this general election is over. And for many people, it really is over. For my dear friend, Stephen Lloyd, for example, the utterly dedicated MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon, it’s very clearly over now. When I woke up, at 5am, he had just announced that he was retiring from politics, after losing his seat by a margin of 733 votes. I know how hard he worked. I know how much his constituents loved him. But his political career is now over. Politics is a tough, tough, tough, tough game.
And the thing is, it isn’t a game. Some people seem to think it is. Some people seem to think it’s funny when people who have devoted their lives to making other people’s lives better fight tears on a podium and try to put a brave face on their loss. I’m glad I live in a country that values “robust” debate. But it’s surprising how many people seem to think that running a country is very much like running a bath. Jeremy Paxman certainly gave the impression, in his interviews with Cameron and Miliband, that he could do much better than anyone who has ever actually given it a go. So did almost all the guests on that Question Time “election leaders special” last week. They all managed to give the impression that they’d be great at running North Korea. They just wouldn’t do quite such a good job at doing anything that involved working with anyone else.
You’d have to be a psychopath to take pleasure in some of the losses the past 12 hours have seen. Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander and Jim Murphy, for example, didn’t lose their seats because they were bad at their job. They lost their seats because Scotland is currently in the grip of a wave of hysteria, and a cult of leadership, of a kind we haven’t seen for quite a while. If Scotland now has its own Margaret Thatcher, it isn’t just because of the sharp suits and the oh-so-highly coiffed hair. It’s because of the certainty: the glittering, unfaltering and slightly scary certainty. Charisma goes down a treat on the telly, but it’s not exactly the same as knowing how to balance a budget – or get things done.
In the past few hours, the country has lost three party leaders. Lady Bracknell might have something to say about that. I’ll shed no tears for Nigel Farage. He has, it’s true, spoken out for the people in this country who feel they have paid a high price for uncontrolled immigration. Many people have paid a high price for uncontrolled immigration, but to pretend that the challenges they face can be solved by tighter borders is about as helpful as the “anti-austerity” parties’ view that the deficit is as serious as a cracked nail.
(The fact that all three female party leaders seemed to believe that every political problem could be solved by a magic money tree didn’t, by the way, do all that much for images of female economic competence. Which leaves Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde as apparently rare members of a tribe with both breasts and a brain.)
As for Nick Clegg. Well, where do you start with Nick Clegg? He should, it’s true, have done a better job at explaining why he changed his mind on tuition fees and why the system we ended up with is a graduate tax in all but name. He could, perhaps, have pointed out that the number of applications from poorer households to university didn’t actually go down, but up. But you didn’t have to “agree with Nick” to grasp that he and his colleagues (Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes etc) did a pretty good job in tempering the excesses of the Tory right. He wasn’t naïve enough to think that the nation would reward them for their efforts. He certainly wasn’t naïve enough to think that Lib Dem activists, who seem to prefer fantasy (or “protest”, as they like to call it) to the messy business of government, would be rushing to hail them as conquering heroes. But it wouldn’t have been crazy for him to think that his party didn’t deserve to be wiped out. “Liberalism,” he said in a moving and dignified speech this morning as he announced his resignation, “is not faring well against the politics of fear”. In this, he is certainly right.
And so, on to Miliband. Poor, misguided, defeated Ed Miliband. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, as he contemplates the scale of his loss. Under his leadership, Labour has won fewer seats than it did under Michael Foot in 1983. And that was the year the Labour leader wrote “the longest suicide note in history”. From the moment he announced his victory in the Labour leadership contest, Miliband started writing suicide note number two. Like many paths to self-destruction, it sprang out of violence. If you want to seem like a man of the people, and particularly if you want to seem like a “decent” man of the people, then knifing your brother probably isn’t the best place to start.
But if you are going to wreck your brother’s career, and probably break your mother’s heart, you’d better make sure it’s going to be worth it. And it was clear from the start that it wasn’t going to work out well. It’s hard to imagine how a sane human being could look at the political landscape of this country and announce that what the Labour party really needed was to be more left wing. But this is what Miliband did. And this is what he has continued to do. He and his colleagues have continued to talk as if the private sector was something that needed to be crushed. He has, in fact, continued to talk as if 80% of people didn’t work in it. And as if this wasn’t what paid for most people’s rent, and tax, and bills.
To be fair, and I suppose you should try to be fair, it would have been hard even for David Miliband to have argued against a government which oversaw the highest level of economic growth in the Western world. A government, in fact, that has created more jobs than the rest of Europe put together. Labour kept trying to talk about a “cost of living crisis”, and for many people things are still quite tough. But our “cost of living crisis” wouldn’t count as a crisis in almost any other country in the world.
And the polls? God only knows what happened with the polls. When people started saying that the NHS was the issue that mattered most to them, I thought something must be wrong. Sure, the NHS matters. For those of us who have had our lives saved by it, it matters an awful lot. But matters most? It’s always the economy that matters most. And it takes a lot to swap a government that has managed a successful economy for one that won’t even admit that it has been in the habit of splashing way too much cash.
So, here we are. Five more years of the Tories. Five more years, with £12bn more in “welfare” cuts, which are uncosted, vindictive – and about as easy to pull off as a Branson trip to Mars. Fasten your seat-belts, folks. It really is going to be a bumpy ride.