Who'd be a Labour or Tory MP right now?

by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2009

Here’s a short exercise for a Sunday afternoon: if you woke up today and were one of the following, how would you be feeling?

1) a Labour MP
2) a Tory MP

It’s not quite as straightforward as it seems. For sure, Labour MPs’ self-confidence is going to be fragile just now – for the second time in a year, their party’s poll ratings have crashed below the 30% level, conjuring up memories of the ignominy of Michael Foot’s 1983 election defeat. And yet desperate times can also be quite exciting, too. Just think back to the febrile state of John Major’s Tory government in the mid-1990s – yes, they were worried, but there was much nervous energy, too, as future leadership rivals jockeyed for position.

Labour’s mood now seems more somnolent, almost resigned to their fate. Perhaps Labour MPs feel it’s their just desserts: they had the opportunity to topple Gordon Brown last summer, and flunked it. Now they must live out their fate. Or perhaps it’s the paucity of viable challengers for the leadership which is depressing them? There are plenty of pretenders to the Prime Ministerial throne, but no heirs-apparent. That almost every cabinet minister has now been linked with the top job does not point to the copiousness of talent in Labour’s ranks; quite the reverse.

From all of which you might conclude that the most fun to be had at the moment is to be a Tory MP: seemingly assured of a general election victory, with only the scale of the majority in doubt. Yet it does not seem that way just now, does it? There are a couple of logical reasons for this. First, Gordon Brown has ‘dead-bounced’ once already; might he still again? Secondly, even if the Tories win their inheritance will be far from golden, as they try and glue back together the shattered fragments of the British economy.

But I don’t actually think those two concerns are paramount in the minds of Tory MPs. I think the fear is more basic: they’re worried they’re not up to the job of government, and they’re even more worried that they don’t actually know what it is they want to achieve. Of course, most Tory MPs know what they’d actually like to do: halt immigration, leave the EU, bring back fox-hunting, and cut taxes (to take just four random examples). They also know that these desires are not wholly in tune with those of the British people, and that – with the possible exception of fox-hunting – none are likely to be realised. In which case, what’s the bloody point?

It’s an odd form of politics where the likely losers – Labour – can’t get excited about what comes next, while the likely winners – the Tories – are worried because of what they think will come next.