By Hugh Ash
Ever rush to judgement was the dictum of Strangler Lewis, an old editor of my acquaintance and verily a legend in his own lunchtime.
Trouble was Strangler rarely heeded his own advice, too readily succumbing to an incendiary temper, outbursts of which usually saw weighty Underwood typewriters heaved through his third-floor office window.
Fortunately at 2 am passers-by were few, so whichever plate of glass in the Black Lubyianka – as the art deco building was dubbed by its hacks within – got shattered was hastily repaired and a maintenance crew despatched to sweep the debris off the pavement below, before the gendarmerie took an interest.
Despite the paper’s Right-leaning sentiments, Strangler’s attitude to politicians was ‘a plague on all their houses’, since he considered the Conservatives a meld of noblesse oblige country squires, stockbrokers on the make and part-time MPs-cum-QCs, Labour up to its gills in hock to union paymasters and the Liberals, as they were then, irrelevant.
Had they been around in his day, Strangler should have been a natural UKipper. After all, he ran the Union Jack up a 30-foot flagpole on his front lawn each morning, which Mrs. Strangler ceremonially lowered at dusk.
Except Strangler had fierce disdain for political carpetbaggers and would have cast Nigel Farage one of them, heaping grave misgivings on the UKIP boss’s shark grin and bloke-in-the-boozer Vaudeville act.
The four-party politics that exists now – if you count the pious Greens, plus regional nationalists as a single, nuisance-value entity – would have posed a huge dilemma 40 years or more ago for the likes of Strangler, just as it does to today’s electorate.
Because the threat the also-rans wield could be a wrecking ball to the chances of call-me-Dave Cameron’s Tories or Red Ed Miliband’s socialists winning outright victories and not having to schmooze fringe mobs into an uneasy coalition.
So much, then, for Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which – for the foreseeable future, I’d wager – will see government continue to be run by the strongest single party, propped up by one of the weakest.
Hence, Britain again looks set fair for a two-party coalition come the general election next May and possibly a reprise of a Con-Lib Dem pact, which has soldiered on longer than I imagined and performed better than I expected.
Much credit for that goes to Nick Clegg’s lust for power.
What’s more, in my humble estimation, I think the British electorate would buy into another dose, albeit with Lib-Dem Treasury Secretary, Danny Alexander, replacing the discredited, egotistical Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister.
This is regardless of the projection the Lib-Dems will be all but decimated next time out, their 56 seats reduced to a rump of about 17. Because even that should be enough for them to be willing coalition bed-mates again, providing the Tories emerge with the largest number of seats.
UKIP mavericks are tipped to gain about six constituencies, mainly in Thames delta towns, like Clacton, where Tory defector, Douglas Carswell, won nearly 60% of the vote in the October 9 by-election.
Probably a more eye-popping result, though, was the by-election that same day in Labour’s northern heartland of Heywood and Middleton, where the socialists squeaked home by a humbling 617 majority over UKIP, underlining Farage’s boast that his upstarts pose an equal threat to Miliband as much as Cameron.
Undoubtedly, the party of dissent – and their ballsy leader – have demonstrated the dangers they pose on all fronts, even if by-elections bring out the worst in a disgruntled electorate, who uses such opportunities to cane the major parties, then revert to type come a general election.
All the same, Cameron’s political machine is taking no chances in Rochester & Strood on 20 November, where another Tory defector, Mark Reckless, hopes to become UKIP’s second MP.
Whereas they regarded Carswell winning Clacton as a foregone conclusion, given his local popularity, Rochester & Strood is altogether different territory for Tory strategists.
More affluent and less malleable to Farage’s blarney, Reckless faces the Conservative’s kitchen sink, plus its star performer – London’s much-admired, if eccentric mayor, Boris Johnson – being chucked at him.
Nonetheless, the bookies rate Reckless as 2/5 favourite. And if he does carry the day, it will force Cameron back to the drawing-board, hatching fresh plans to out-UKIP Farage.
Labour’s problems are no less daunting. Apart from UKIP no longer being dismissed as a Tory-only hassle, their problem remains the credibility and popularity – or lack of it – of their leader.
Miliband’s rallying call at his conference speech last month fell like a lead balloon, leaving many of the party faithful at best bemused, at worst terrified.
And that was after an ICM-Guardian poll reported Miliband’s ratings had crumbled from -25 to -39 points, with only 22% of voters saying he was ‘doing a good job’. In contrast, Cameron’s slid from +2 to -5, but his leadership qualities still command most voters’ respect.
Not since Michael Foot has an opposition Labour leader registered such negativity with a general election looming.
And, at a time when the Milibandits should be a country mile ahead in the polls, a new YouGov/Sunday Times survey gives Labour only a three-point lead over the Tories – 35% to 32 – with UKIP on 16% and the Lib-Dems floundering on 7%, two below the Greens.
Meanwhile, piling more misery on Labour is the nightmarish prospect that many of their 40 Scottish MPs might be culled by the resurgent Scottish Nationalists, now commanded by Nicola Sturgeon.
Labour, however, are sticking to the belief that if they can pull 35% of the vote, it should haul them over the finishing line first and they are just about on course to scrape by.
With every vote counting, a UKIP success in Rochester & Strood will inch them further towards victory. And the more they can keep Miliband gagged – and away from embarrassing bacon-sarnie photo shoots – the better their chances.
Whatever else, next May’s general election will be laced with intrigue and uncertainty.
Too close to call, Tories must hope the spectre of the wimpy Miliband occupying 10 Downing Street will be the decisive factor in what comes to pass.
To read more of Hugh Ash’s comments, follow his online blog – Views From The Mallorca Pier – at hughash.wordpress.com