Prince Charming and the panto that lost the plot

matthew parris http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,482-222975,00.html

The wise are saying it wasn't simple and anyway it's over. The wise are saying that the latest Byers affair is too tangled for the electorate to bother our pretty little heads with; that what Stephen Byers did tell Sir Richard Mottram or did not tell Jonathan Dimbleby is too shaded and too trivial to matter.
The wise say that the Tories would be fools to think they can benefit, that their past condemns them to perpetual silence on sleaze lest a public memory of old sins be refreshed; and that if the Byers affair leaves any legacy at all, it will only be a heightened cynicism about all politicians.

We fools say it is simple. We say the voters know enough to know that something shabby has been done quite near the top, and left unpunished. We say a near mutiny in part of Whitehall is not trivial.

We say the Tories must benefit; that the Liberal Democrats must benefit; that all new Labour's competitors must benefit; that the Conservative Party's unique status as moral untouchables is not an unalterable clause of the British constitution and must dissolve; that public memories of Tory sleaze must fade into some kind of perspective; and that this episode must help that process.

We fools say this nasty little scandal may not be over yet, and that when it is, voters will still remember.

To listen to some of my colleagues in the media, you would think that the old copybook headings of British politics have been abolished. The fashionable new fairytale goes something like this: "Once upon a time, long, long ago - as long as 20 years, even - everybody trusted politicians and took a lively and informed interest in our democratic process. Then came a band of wicked Tories. They cheated and lied and slept around. By about 1986 folk were getting suspicious. Eventually they threw out the Wicked Witch in charge of the Tories, and invited a gentler Tory, "Buttons" Major, to be Prime Minister.

"But the Tories didn't get any better. Luckily, just as everybody was beginning to despair, Prince Charming arrived. He was handsome and brave and seemed different from the rest. Prince Charming formed the new Labour Party, promised to be purer than pure', and threw out the Tories. Everyone cheered.

"But - oh dear! - soon some of Prince Charming's gang started to misbehave too. Before long, nobody trusted any politicians except possibly the Liberal Democrats, who were unfortunately a bit dozy and disorganised.

"So now, children, we are all terribly disillusioned, but we shall probably vote for Prince Charming again because we became so very fed up with the last lot. We have lost our innocence, however, and democracy will never be the same again."

The truer account follows. Our democracy is a stable state, but proceeds in cycles of hope and despair. The British, and especially the English, have often distrusted politics, intermittently loathed our political leaders, and love to abuse them. From time to time one party has driven us to such fury that we have fallen into the arms of another with a trust born more of hope than experience. But it never lasts.

Britain is somewhere mid-phase between hope and disillusion now. As we judge our governors incompetent we shall increasingly be in the mood to find them disreputable. As we discover dishonour in this lot we shall start discerning unsuspected qualities - even honour - in the other lot.

That is how love goes. But the cycle is slow. When one party falls from public esteem then, before affections transfer to another, there must by the very laws of physics be a point when both are level-pegging in our disfavour. If that is all the wise mean when they prophesy a coming age when we think politicians are "all the same", then who could disagree? But "they're all the same" is no more enduring a condition than a broken heart. Afterwards, the electorate will be on the rebound.

Meanwhile, for a party as despised as the Tories have been, "they're all the same" would be a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

It was Tony Blair's great appeal in 1997 that his lot were not all the same, and we believed him. For the Conservative Party, to find itself in no greater contempt than its rivals would represent a huge gain.

I may sound cynical but that is because I think the electorate, between their occasional crushes on parties or personalities, are more cynical than they pretend. If the Liberal Democrats have never been as despised as Labour or the Tories then this may not promise such exciting possibilities as some of my fellow journalists suppose: it may be because the electorate have never quite taken them seriously. It will not do so until the Liberal Democrats take themselves seriously. They remain, in a profound sense, a meaningless party, a political toy. The voters like toying with parties, so the Liberal Democrats may have some good times ahead, but - until they can show for what purpose they were made - they will be licked, rattled, dressed, undressed and broken, as playthings.

For the Tories, the longer term holds promise. For this Prime Minister the middle term is worrying. Night is closing in on each of his two great promises: to be a better Government than the last, and to be nicer people.

On policy, an outline of the real Tony Blair is slowly forming amid the soft pink mist. He is the continuation of Shirley Williams by other means. Baroness Williams of Crosby was always too honourable and never sufficiently focused to develop Williamsism beyond the experimental stage: a flawed prototype for Blairism, the ideology came a cropper in the SDP; but she showed an early instinct for the Third Way.

Older readers will recall her time as Minister for Prices and Consumer Protection in a Labour Government when inflation was edging out of control. The First Way would have been statutory price control. The Second Way would have been no control. Opting for the Third Way, Mrs Williams appeared on television with a shopping basket and invited retailers to join her voluntary Price Check scheme under which, in return for permission to display red triangles in their windows, they would undertake not to raise prices of certain "core" goods by more than 5 per cent. (Naturally, shopkeepers raised all their other prices instead, so we got the free market anyway.) Price Check was an uncanny portent of Blairist thinking. Cuddly, intellectually disreputable pap. The Third Way, we now learn, means licenced foxhunting. I suppose in Wilberforce's time the Third Way would have been licensed slavery. New Deal (also failing) is very Third Way: showy tinkering as costs and taxes creep up and public spending drifts. So is the whole paraphernalia of pledges, pilots, mission statements and targets. The greater part of Tony Blair's manifesto is heading for the sand.

In these coming circumstances, looking at least nice grows in importance to him and must soon, as results fail to show, bear enormous weight. In this regard, his decision to stick with Stephen Byers looks puzzling, but it has a logic.

It is a weird logic. Do you remember Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray? If only (young Dorian muses at a flawless and enchanting portrait of himself) he could remain forever beautiful and unblemished by sin or time, and the picture instead should grow coarse and ugly with age, "for that - for that - I would give everything". And so it happens: cruelly, for Dorian becomes as inwardly degraded as his outward appearance stays pure. The portrait "would be to him the visible emblem of conscience".

Consider men such as Stephen Byers as the Pictures of Dorian Blair. He keeps them around him, pygmy politicians, soaking up for him the stains of compromise, dishonesty, calculation, visionlessness, gracelessness and sheer mean-spirit, while he stands free and apart, the spirit of new Labour towering above its mere henchmen: pure and unblemished and somehow above mere politics.

Throw your punches at Byers; vote for Tony. Spit at Stephen, and when you have spat enough, Tony - Tony, mark you, in his own time, not the newspapers in theirs - will kill him in a Cabinet reshuffle. And then you will have all the more cause to thank Tony.

The press talk of Mr Byers's "reprieve". Reprieve? More like condemnation. The Transport Secretary is to be kept in the stocks for our gruesome entertainment, until the winter is over and spring, and Tony Blair, purges the stain. But, oh my friends, we fools are getting wise to this.

When, later this year, the Prime Minister faces Stephen Byers to sack him, he should recall Wilde's book. Dorian "drew the screen aside and saw himself, face to face. The portrait had altered."

How fervently Tony would have preferred the face of Peter Mandelson in place of that of Stephen Byers, you can guess from the frenzy of dissimulation which came yesterday from Downing Street.

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