Time and tide waits for no politician

by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2005

Fairest to me of all delights
That makes this earth a heaven,
Is the joy of finding it half-past six,
When I thought it was half-past seven.

Success in politics, as in comedy, is all about timing. Some have it, some don’t. Today, as he wound the clock back one hour, I wonder if David Davis secretly wished he could keep on turning? Perhaps to a month ago, before he mumbled his way through that conference speech, and self-imploded his second and final Tory leadership challenge. And I wonder if Gordon Brown were secretly wishing the clocks could have moved forward? Perhaps to that as yet unspecified time when Mr Blair will bequeath him the New Labour Government, rather as an older brother might discard his tatty and unfashionable hand-me-downs.

It all looked so different when Messrs Brown and Davis were the shoo-ins for their respective parties: but Spring forward, Fall back.

The prevailing wisdom among the Chancellor’s supporters had gone something like this: two years of Tony, a graceful handover-cum-coronation, two years of honeymoon for Mr Brown, then a triumphant election victory. But that was back in May, when Mr Brown was widely credited with saving Mr Blair’s electoral skin, as the two of them toured Britain with their ‘Vote for one, get the other free’ message. Then, of course, July saw Mr Blair re-assert his authority, as the vicious synchronicity of the London Olympics announcement and 7/7 bombings allowed him to promenade his finely-tuned ‘pained resolution’ rhetoric.

But the hyper-kinesis of the last month has smashed to smithereens even that topsy-turvy summer. Ever since the newcomer, David Cameron, entered stage right, ad libbing as Mr Blair’s Mini-Me, his opponents – both Tory and Labour – have been trying desperately to stick to the script they helped write. No one, neither Mr Brown nor Mr Davis, wants to be upstaged by Mr Cameron: to end up typecast as his supporting actor.

Ten weeks ago, I wrote an article comparing the then Tory leadership contenders to the Seven Dwarves of fairytale yore. With hindsight, I see now that I blundered in labelling Mr Davis as Grumpy. In fact, the dwarf he now most resembles is a White Dwarf: an average-size star, which, after it has shed its outside layers, becomes “a tiny ball of degenerate matter not massive enough for further fusion to take place, supported only by degeneracy pressure”, according to Wikipedia. Harsh, but fair.

No one can dispute Mr Cameron’s sense of timing. Less than one month ago, a YouGov poll in The Daily Telegraph suggested only one in ten voters could identify the Tories’ new Sun King, compared with recognition factors of 83% for Ken Clarke, 57% for Mr Davis and 19% for Liam Fox. Mr Cameron has since eclipsed them all, earning the dubious pleasure of what will doubtless be the first of many Private Eye covers. An ICM poll today suggested almost three-quarters of Tory members would plump for him. Which means we will have opportunity soon enough to discover if the Sun King is more than just a shooting star.

All this has left Labour looking nervously over its shoulder (especially if they’re called Walter Wolfgang). As the Scottish writer, Eric Linklater, put it: “At my back I often hear Time’s winged chariot changing gear.”

The Tories have – or at least think they have, which may amount to the same thing – their own Blair-lite. If, and surely when, the dour, brooding, stentorian Mr Brown eventually swaps his role as Last Word of the Treasury to become its First Lord, will the comparison with the smiling, youthful, modern Mr Cameron be helpful to the Labour cause? Will it enable Labour to pitch the next election as battle-hardened experience versus silver-spooned naivety? Or will it be viewed as glum-faced Presbyterianism against fresh-faced optimism?

That the questions are even being asked points to the sea-change in British politics we have witnessed in the last month. And that some are suggesting Labour may also now wish to skip a generation points to the universal truth underpinning Sir Robin Day’s waspish observation to John Nott that he was a “a transient, here today and, if I may say so, gone tomorrow politician”.

Time and tide wait for no man. If either Mr Davis or Mr Brown should be at all depressed by their inability to control the temporal, they might at least comfort themselves with the thought that no politician is exempt: how President Bush must wish he could have stopped the clock on 3rd November, 2004, the last time he appeared in charge of his own destiny.