Which national interest? – Kenneth Roy’s diary of a mad weekend….
The long day begins with Peter Hain talking about ‘the national interest’. He also manages to squeeze in ‘for the good of the country’. It was that old monster John Junor who, when repelled by the latest political hypocrisy, ended the relevant paragraph: ‘Fetch the sick bag, Alice’. Alice has not been heard of for some years, but it is already clear that she and her commodious receptacle will require to be brought out of retirement for this momentous day in British history, this day of destiny, etc.
Sarah Brown leaves Downing Street in funereal black, her small, box-like hat the fashion note of the morning and not a good look. She and her husband, ‘the caretaker prime minister’ as he is now known, walk the short distance to the Cenotaph for a VE day service. Gordon Brown suddenly looks about 100 years old. How he must long to be anywhere but here.
The Duchess of Cornwall emerges from a wheelchair. ‘She broke her leg in Scotland, I understand,’ intones a television commentator. ‘Pretty rocky territory up there.’ Rocky, indeed. Having awarded 3rd and 4th places in the popular vote to the parties now negotiating to run the UK, the cave-dwellers may be starting to wonder which national interest is being served by these events.
A ‘Lib Dem source’ tips off the BBC that, last night, Brown and Clegg had an ‘angry exchange’ on the telephone lasting 40 minutes. The caretaker prime minister only has to mutter some harmless imprecation for it to be misinterpreted as a foul-tempered rant. I am beginning to think it is a cultural thing – that the fragile flowers of the English media, and the polite people who work for the Liberal Democrats, are unfamiliar with the coarse frankness of conversational style in our rocky promontory. They ought to try working in this office.
Who on earth is that funny little man with the moustache sitting next to Camilla? How odd. He is someone from the distant past, the day before yesterday. It is none other than Bob Ainsworth, the caretaker defence secretary, with the furtive look of an uninvited dinner guest. It is reported that Alistair Darling, the caretaker chancellor of the exchequer, is attending some meeting of finance ministers in Europe. The affairs of state continue, but with ghosts in charge.
At noon, David Dimbleby returns briefly to BBC1. ‘The thing the public can’t stand is Gordon Brown,’ he snarls at Harriet Harman. Note the language. It is no longer necessary for the BBC to maintain the least pretence about the caretaker prime minister. Yet, since 42% of Scots voted for the thing’s party, or for the thing himself, we cannot be sure to which public Dimbleby alludes.
Someone on the panel makes the most acute observation of the morning. The reason David Cameron is so keen to have the support of his new best friend Nick is that he will find the Lib Dems more reliable lobby fodder than some of his own backbenchers, who have for long felt neglected and unappreciated by their leader.
There is a lunchtime meeting of the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary group. Remarkably, not all 57 varieties have contrived to be present for the day of destiny etc. One is missing for reasons unexplained, another ‘couldn’t get up from Cornwall in time’. It is understood that he or she was walking all the way from Penzance and hopes to arrive before the dissolution of the next parliament. If not later.
Sky TV is interviewing a procession of talking heads on College Green.
Polly Toynbee of the Guardian says: ‘The idea their votes are going to be used by the Tories will destroy the Lib Dems. It’s a suicide note.’
‘That’s hyperbole,’ counters Evan Harris, an ex-Lib Dem MP. One of the strangest things about today, after all the confident predictions, is that we are now referring to some prominent Lib Dems as ‘ex’.
It is cold and blowy in London. ‘The rain will sit there,’ predicts the Sky weather forecaster, pointing at a map of England. ‘And then a frost will develop.’ It seems the only hot air is being generated by the inhabitants of the asylum we call British politics, and the many hangers-on who clamour outside its gates.
‘Soon,’ the Sky presenter announces, ‘we’ll be talking to the woman who could be the prime minister’s next wife.’
But to which prime minister is this opportunistic floozie attaching herself? Is it the caretaker prime minister – the thing? Or could it be the prime minister in waiting – the non-thing? Or is the woman who could be the prime minister’s next wife hedging her bets and cosying up to both the leading contenders, with a wee fancy for young Nick lest all else fails?
But wait. Before we can be introduced to the prime minister’s next wife, Kay Burley down there on College Green is being drowned out by demonstrators.
‘Can we take a break?’ she asks desperately.
‘No? We can’t take a break? But we can’t be heard either.’ This is true.
She carries on interviewing her latest talking heads, although only professional lip-readers can understand what they are saying. Meanwhile the real news, the only news of the day, is marching past. Miss Burley seems not to be interested in the revolutionary nature of this event, possibly the world’s first demo in favour of proportional representation. It is the Guardian op-ed page out on the streets of London. Everyone can spell. On the placards, apostrophes are impeccably positioned.
The inevitable can be avoided no longer. Miss Burley is given one of the organisers to interview. She has been unfailingly polite to politicians and journalists, but now she will not let this man speak, shrilly interrupting him every few seconds. He is the soul of reason, one of those English eccentrics who talk of little else but electoral reform or Morris dancing.
Gordon and Sarah Brown are returning to North Queensferry; I recommend a pint or two in the Albert followed by an early night.
Meanwhile, back in central London, the demonstrators have assembled outside the rooms where the Lib Dems are meeting. Clegg emerges, collects a petition, makes a short, non-commital speech, and leaves for a meeting with the party’s ‘federal executive’. Apparently the federal executive consists of people of whom no one has ever heard (‘treasurers and so on’ as one reporter mysteriously puts it), but suddenly they are key players in the day of destiny etc.
Norman Tebbit is on the phone. He says the Conservatives are ‘love-bombing’ the Liberals, that Cameron should govern alone, that Clegg should be locked in a cupboard. The old jokers are the best jokers.
Now the demonstrators have returned to College Green and are taunting the Sky TV presenter.
‘Don’t watch Kay Burley,’ they chant. ‘Watch the BBC’.
‘They don’t like me,’ she complains. ‘They don’t like Rupert Murdoch.’
The screen goes blank. When the coverage resumes, it does so from the studio. Miss Burley is not seen again for the rest of the day.
On Channel 4 News at 630, two Tories and two Lib Dems are brought together on either side of the negotiating table. There is consensus all over the carpet. Suddenly, everything’s negotiable. Trident is not mentioned – but, if it had been, one feels it would have been no deal-breaker. In the national interest, and for the good of the country, no doubt they would have agreed to build half a nuclear submarine.
Talking of sweet reason, here’s Alex Salmond standing in front of a bridge in Aberdeenshire under which quite a lot of water has already flowed. Alex has been doing his sums and has worked out that, by adding the votes of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Cloud Cuckoo Land and somewhere over the rainbow, it would be possible to sustain a Lab-Lib Dem coalition in office for at least three and a half weeks. He is smiling benignly. He has the air of a man who, as soon as he is off air, will be enjoying a hearty dinner with scarcely a care in the world.
Then the BBC sheepishly announces that, unobserved by any of the media, the two partners in the relationship had a clandestine meeting earlier in the evening. All day friends of the pair had been covering for the young lovers. Had we not been assured that, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being extremely unlikely, the chances of a meeting before the end of the day were 1? Indeed we had.
Yet, after his encounter with the treasurers, when it was categorically stated that he was ‘going home’, Nick was not going home. Instead he was sneaking off to Admiralty House for a date with Dave. The British public is always the last to know.
Another day of destiny. Or, rather, of journalists talking endlessly to each other on television. The only one I would have wanted to hear, Alan Watkins, died yesterday. We will never know what our greatest political essayist would have made of this pantomime.
Around 6pm, William Hague emerges. He is followed by young Danny for the Liberal Democrats. The commentariat say the deal is on, the body language good. We are told that the two young lovers have spoken on the telephone. Nick did go to see Gordon, just for an hour for old time’s sake, but he told Dave first and Dave was okay about it.
Why are the Liberal Democrats doing it? The party of Europe, many of whose members are to the left of Labour – what is possessing them this mad weekend?
I am reminded of a motorway sign. Tiredness Kills.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.