Ten days to go and, as Jeremy Paxman pointed out in the Financial Times, our choice is between a man who went to primary school with Boris Johnson, and one who went to secondary school with him.
It is quite possible that whoever ‘wins’ will fail to secure enough votes to form a majority government. Apparently there are as many as 11 different possible outcomes. Faced with a similar possibility in 2010 civil servants prepared by simulating different scenarios but gave up after being unable to strike any deals. According to the then cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, in a Financial Times article earlier this year, they concluded that ‘if politicians were to make progress, they would need to be more flexible than our teams’. This ought to be cause for concern but, if mediations are anything to go by, I suspect that any obstacles will be overcome.
As a mediator, dealing with parties who feel that they are miles apart and are experiencing difficulties trying to bridge the gaps is all too familiar. Yet given a genuine desire to find a solution and someone to help guide them safely over the bumps, they invariably get there. ‘Principles’ standing in the way soon dissolve, especially when the situation is put in perspective. Here, sadly, it will be less about whatever policies a newly formed government would like to implement and more about managing a country that is ‘near-bankruptcy’, with options limited unless taxes rise significantly or, as Paxman suggests ‘great swathes of public spending cease to exist’. For all the talk about possible tax cuts, these will probably deliver less for most families than the recent petrol price fall.
The real reason why the parties will probably forge a workable solution though is because, unlike Gus O’Donnell’s civil servants, their need will be borne out of self-interest. Ultimately, it will be less about ‘do we/don’t we?’ than ‘how can we’? If the choice is between governing and oblivion, you can bet on politicians to reach what at first might seem surprising ‘accommodations’. Possibly with unlikely partners too. There have been frequent speculations about possible collaborations with the SNP and of a prime minister having to run things past Holyrood, culminating in last week’s Daily Mail front page story branding Nicola Sturgeon as ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain’. Whoever becomes prime minister might have to face the consequences – media and opposition attacks and possibly challenges from alienated party supporters let down by commitments that were ‘negotiated away’ – but at least he would be there to do so.
Plus ca change it seems, except that whoever wins this election, it is quite possible that the next one will be fought not by someone who went to school with Boris but by the man who once proclaimed that ‘my chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive’.
Next week – and I promise this wasn’t brought on by the election – I will be writing about why people lie and offering advice from 3 former CIA officers on the 9 ways to get the truth out of anyone. In the meantime, I will leave you with a (possibly mythical) story involving Peter Mandelson. Buying supper at a chippie in his former Hartlepool constituency, he asked for haddock, chips and ‘some of that guacamole’ – mistaking the mushy peas for avocado dip.