I cannot remember a general election whose result was harder to call than the one that is almost upon us. For months — or rather for years (ever since, in fact, the bloom first came off Gordon Brown's premiership within a very short time of his coming to office) — it seemed to be an open-and-shut case. The Conservatives were going to win and the only question was the size of the party's majority. Was Labour facing "a wipe-out" — as happened in recent times to a Progressive Conservative government in Canada — or would Gordon Brown (as what the late Roy Jenkins used to call "a tail-end Charlie Prime Minister") simply go the way of poor Jim Callaghan in May 1979? He also, you may recall, "bottled" an election which he might well have won in the Micawber-like hope that something would turn up — or, as we used to put it at the dawn of the Blair Age that "things could only get better". In fact, in the winter of 1978-9 they got steadily worse, and Callaghan, like Brown until only a month or so ago, found himself facing the inevitability of defeat. The Brown government, I used regularly to proclaim on TV and radio, had "passed the point of no return" — and nothing could save it. The electorate had made up its mind, and that was that.
It sounded plausible enough when I used to give that as my reading of the situation, and in a way it still does. To win a fourth successive electoral victory is a high hurdle for any party and it is all-too-likely to come a cropper in attempting such a feat. John Major, after all, only just got over the bar in 1992, and there must have been moments in the years that followed when he wished he had not managed it. There is the additional point that, if four consecutive periods in office is not good for any particular political party, then it is a great deal worse for democracy itself. If our society, "broken" or not, is to remain even roughly at peace with itself, it is bound to require a change of government at regular (not too great) intervals.
Oddly enough, politicians themselves tend to understand that. "There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics," Callaghan once famously remarked while being driven around Parliament Square just before the 1979 election. "It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change — and it is for Mrs Thatcher." That, it seemed to me until a few weeks ago, was the only realistic position for Brown to take up if he wished his government to die with its dignity intact. Its defeat was written in the stars and there was nothing he could do about it.
When did I first begin to have second thoughts? I suppose nagging away at the back of my mind there had always been one doubt. If 13 years of Labour rule were due to come to an end in May 2010, then where was the air of anticipation and excitement that had certainly marked Tony Blair's march to power in 1997? It certainly wasn't detectable in the political atmosphere of 2009-10, but for months I managed to explain its absence away to myself by invoking the general air of cynicism about politics, to say nothing of the various scandals (MPs' expenses etc) that had affected all parties in the run-up to polling day.
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