Sunday 25 September 2016

It's all to play for in the British general election

The Celtic fringe has pundits, bookies and voters scratching their heads, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 03/05/2015 | 02:30

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon

It's some feat, but this British general election is simultaneously the most boring and the most interesting I've ever followed.

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Most commentators and bookies predict a hung parliament and a minority government: David Cameron will govern with the support of the DUP and maybe a UKIP MP or three; or Ed Miliband will be forced ever leftwards by the Scottish National Party, for Nicola Sturgeon - the socialist first minister of Scotland who sports hot colours and vertiginous heels - will have won every seat in Scotland. If Cameron loses, Boris Johnson will become party leader: if Miliband loses, who knows.

Boring, because it's unprecedentedly long, the major parties argue endlessly about how much they will spend and how much the others will tax or cut, and the two political leading men - Cameron and Miliband - have run dull, safe campaigns offering us more of the uninspiring same or a return to 1970s-style, ill-judged Whitehall meddling.

Interesting because the British are used to the stability of majority government - or, recently, a steady coalition headed by Cameron and the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg - and this time they fear some kind of constitutional Armageddon. And the bit players who are moving centre-stage are livening things up no end.

Attention is being paid to the hitherto unknown Nigel Dodds, the Westminster DUP leader, who now pronounces nationally about the importance of maintaining the defence and welfare budgets and the union, while Sturgeon demands nuclear disarmament and an end to austerity.

Both agree on little except that they disapprove of UKIP's Nigel Farage saying the Scots are racist and the English are fed-up. Farage is right, though. The independence referendum in Scotland stirred up a latent Anglophobia: what are called the 'cybernats' are very unpleasant indeed and so too are those nationalist activists who denounce as traitors those who want to stay in the United Kingdom and scream at Labour politicians that they are "Red Tories".

The English, who have for many decades thought nationalism rather embarrassing, have become aggrieved to learn that for decades through something called the Barnett formula, they have heavily subsidised their shrill Celtic critics.

They hear Sturgeon insisting Barnett be retained; Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, demanding Wales get as much as Scotland; and the DUP and Sinn Fein in unholy alliance saying Northern Ireland, being a special case, needs another billion or two in the interests of peace.

All of which had the English in search of light relief crying, "Where is Boris?" Rather late in the day, the tousle-haired blond bombshell was allowed out of the Tory kennel and sent out with the prime minister on to the campaign trail, where he was mobbed by selfie-seekers, cheered by construction workers and pursued by the press.

After the London mayor's popularity increased when he was filmed looking ridiculous on a trip-wire, Cameron said dejectedly that any other politician would have been ruined by this but that no rules applied to Boris.

The other day, I heard a radio presenter enquiring in a rather absent-minded way if Boris was vulnerable to a "smoking bimbo".

How does he get away with everything? Well, try his explanation of why income inequality matters. It's OK, he explains, that on a plane the first-class passengers guzzle Chateau Margaux and have hot towels thrust on them every 30 seconds, because that provides jobs. But what's unacceptable is if at the back of the plane inflight meals get smaller and smaller and conditions more and more cramped. Conservatives "should be bustling about the plane making sure that everybody feels they are getting a gin and tonic at the right time."

Boris's gift for explaining serious things simply and amusingly is why The Daily Telegraph pays him about ten times the going rate for a weekly column. Income inequality? Yep. But no one much minds.

Should he become prime minister, as he is determined to? The jury is still out, havering between a yes because it would be great fun and he might prove to be a visionary who would transform the United Kingdom and even the EU, and no because no one sane would take the risk.

The other day I put a bet on the Tories to win the election. I don't think I'll win, because for complicated reasons the voting system is biased against them, but at 15/2 I thought it worth a punt.

Here's why.

The 'Shy Tory' was trotted out by pollsters as their excuse after John Major won the 1992 election they had called for Labour. People who think Labour periodically wrecks prosperous economies built up by the Conservatives can't face being denounced as uncaring by the Left, so they keep quiet. Last year, it was 'Shy Unionists' who created the upset in the Scottish referendum.

There are very large numbers of undecideds - probably at least 20pc - and I'd expect about two-thirds of them to go to the incumbents.

Cameron, who has a track record for spotting a looming disaster at five minutes to midnight, has sparked into life and is projecting passion rather than smugness.

The novelty of finding that Miliband is reasonably normal has worn off. He's still rather odd, and not in a Boris kind of life-enhancing way. And while I think Labour will do better in Scotland than predicted, the prospect of the Scots Nats bossing him about is scaring the English. The Greens will get a large youth vote and with 'Shy Lib Dems' and 'Shy UKippers' may take enough votes to deny Labour some vital seats.

If I lose my bet, I think Cameron will probably be able to manage with the support of the DUP and the Lib Dems, who I think will do better than expected.

And Miliband need not be too afraid of the Scots. True, Alex Salmond, who if he wins his seat will be the SNP Westminster leader, wants to throw his weight around, but Sturgeon, his leader, so hates the Tories she says she would never support them against Labour. So shouldn't that mean Labour can do what it likes?

Anyway, I expect to be up most of the night chewing my fingernails.

Sunday Independent

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