I wake up every day to the sound of an argument. This time it’s James Naughtie pressing a shadow minister to declare his position on the prospect of a Corbyn win in the Labour Party leadership contest. The Today programme’s combative exchanges are all too familiar. The politician says no more than his notes allow; the interviewer attempts to expose his subject’s hypocrisy or ignorance. If the politician is guilty of selective hearing, driven by the soundbite and haunted by the Whip, then political interviewers don't fare much better: irascible, heavy-handed, hectoring. It’s a game where each player depends on the other for his own performance. But for all its frustrations there’s no denying that such rhetorical sparring draws a crowd. Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winner and zoologist, once told a story about taking his French bulldog, Bully, for his daily walk. They would pass by the long and narrow garden of a neighbouring house, where a white Spitz lived.
One thing you could say for the Tories over recent decades is that the old delectation for capital and corporal punishment had slipped away. Ted Heath and John Major despised it. Margaret Thatcher, a keen bircher as a backbencher, shrewdly let it go. Suddenly though, the enpurpled spirit of Sir Cyril Osborne has risen from the grave, in response to the Supreme Court's rulings over, first, votes for prisoners, and then the possible removal of some sex offenders' names from the national register. Nobody would think from the squeaking and snarling of Conservative outrage that what was under discussion was an appeal for removal from the list after 15 years of not offending. But already backbenchers are demanding that the UK withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
One of the perks of being a writer these days is that from time to time you get to sit next to politicians at BBC-hosted dinner parties and on publicity-seeking panels of writers feeding the face-time craving of readers. Just before the 1997 election there was Paul (now Baron) Boateng on my left (at the table, not politically) responding to my ill-mannered complaint about the destruction of the point of the Labour Party by the invention of New Labour and its Tory policies on poverty. Don't worry, he said conspiratorially, you'll see. We have to get into power. Then we'll legislate to improve the condition of the poor. We're still the old Labour Party, but we have to get elected. New Labour is the only way to do it. Wait and see, we're playing the long game. But once you're in power, you'll have another election to fight. Just wait and see, he said. I waited and I saw.
The enemies of Gordon Brown are a wonderful company as, God knows, were the enemies of John Major. A government suffers bad shocks, its leader stumbles and attracts a bad press. What government and prime minister do next, over time and rather successfully, may well redeem them with mere voters. But party members in internal opposition at Westminster will have none of it. What follows is suicide bombing – of a genteel and wittering sort.
David Cameron and I visited the Open University the other day, he to give a speech to the world, me to learn something about day-old chicks and biochemistry. Neither of us knew the other was going to be there. I was told at the reception desk to wait on one of the seats behind me and handed a label, one of those clip things I can never work out how to fix to myself. As I turned to go to the chairs, preoccupied with my label dyspraxia, someone grabbed me by my elbow and pulled me to the left. I dislike being grabbed so I pulled away and carried on the way I was going. But I'd failed to notice that the world had changed while I had my back to the room, and a semicircle of large chests in suits were claiming all the space for the man at their centre.