End of the World

John Lanchester · The Last Debate

The news that the bond markets were having conniptions about Greece, and also about Portugal and Spain, was a suitably gloomy frame for the final, economics-oriented debate. If the new government cocks things up, we’re en route for the IMF to come in. So it was time to hear some detail about the parties’ plans to prevent that.

Instead there was the usual theatre, in which the three men picked on each other’s proposed spending cuts and made a meal of them, in a manner analogous to that of grooming chimpanzees. This was their last chance to be specific about what’s coming – the most difficult period, in terms of state spending, for sixty years. They chose to whiff it, and thereby set themselves up for the disastrous possibility of winning the election with no mandate to do what they’re going to have to do. Yesterday’s Guardian had a story about Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, who was quoted by an American economist as having said (‘at a private lunch’) that ‘whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be.’ It’s presumably impossible for a politician to act on that thought – just as no sports team would ever prefer losing – but that doesn’t make it less likely to be true. Clegg tried to give a glimpse of how big the problem is, when he talked about the various chancellor figures gathering in a cross-party ‘council for financial stability’. The other two looked at him as if he had farted. If the purpose of the debate was to sidestep the single most important issue facing the country over the next decade, it was a brilliant success.

As far as the theatre of the event went, Cameron shaded it, mainly because he seemed to underperform expectations the last two times. The first polls agreed with that, but not by enough to suggest that it’s going to have any serious impact on the outcome. So it’s a hung Parliament or a very very narrow Tory win.

In other news, I’ve just been told that the Tory manifesto is at number six in this coming Sunday Times bestseller list. It is officially the end of the world.


  • 30 April 2010 at 10:11am
    Joe Morison says:
    I'd have loved Clegg to say that the reason the Lib Dems hadn't given a greater account of the cuts they'd make was politics, that they had said more than the other parties but if they went further they'd be crucified; and then for him to challenge the others to come clean with the promise that his party would always reveal a higher proportion of the cuts they were going to make than the others.
    But, of course, he's a professional politician - a professional dissembler. If we are disillusioned with Obama, how much more so would we be with Clegg were he to get power? But like Obama, he's still the best of a bad bunch.

  • 30 April 2010 at 10:50am
    marshmallow says:
    I agree that Cameron shaded it, but my word didn't Brown look awful? Sallow, scruffy, defeated - he looked cadaverous. Which was appropriate given that his rhetoric was confined to scaremongering.

    • 30 April 2010 at 10:57am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ marshmallow
      Shades of R. Nixon? HD TV certainly doesn't favour these middle-aged males, does it?

  • 30 April 2010 at 10:56am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Tory manifesto is at number six in this coming Sunday Times bestseller list.
    That would be in Paperback Mass-Market Fiction? Children's Books? Graphic novels?

  • 30 April 2010 at 11:01am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Losing? There is another possibility, as shown by Germany (West) and Austria at the European Cup in - I guess - 1984. The two sides patted the ball back and forth for 90 minutes about twenty yards either side of the middle line and both got into the knock-out stage. Didn't do either side much good though. Is this applicable to the present 'race' for 10 D. Street?

  • 30 April 2010 at 11:06am
    Allan House says:
    The most striking feature of recent general elections has been the collapse of interest in voting at all. In the last two, 40% of registered voters didn't bother. The polls almost never present their results so you can work out current intentions, but my guess would be more of the same. Surely it represents a widespread acceptance that there is little to choose between the parties, but this time I sense more anger than apathy about that state of affairs.

    Once the cuts start, because of course we couldn't protect the welfare state by paying more taxes, then we enter an era that only lacks one ingredient for real disaster (as opposed to criminalised popular unrest) which is a plausible populist to elbow aside the buffoons in UKIP and BNP.

    If that's the real legacy of this vacuous burlesque, then we may not be at the end of the world but it'll feel like it.

  • 30 April 2010 at 12:16pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    Even if Brown looked awful and he was rude about Mrs Duffy, surely these aren't important criteria for electing the next government. But what about this, from Andrew Sullivan's blog:
    The Economist backs the Tories. Here's their case against Clegg:

    [L]ook at the policies, rather than the man, and the Lib Dems seem less appealing. In the event of another European treaty, they would hold a referendum not on that treaty but on whether to stay in or leave the EU; odd, given that they also (wrongly) want to take Britain into the euro. They are flirting with giving up Britain’s nuclear deterrent. They would abolish tuition fees for universities, which would mean either letting the quality of British higher education slide still further or raising the subsidy to mostly well-off students by increasing state funding. They are worried about climate change but oppose the expansion of nuclear power, which is the most plausible way of cutting emissions. Their policies towards business are arguably to the left of Labour’s. A 50% capital-gains tax, getting rid of higher-rate relief on pensions and a toff-bashing mansion tax are not going to induce the entrepreneurial vim Britain needs.

    Okay, it's written from a Tory-Economist point of view: there's nothing wrong with abolishing tuition and a business policy to the left of Labour would be welcome, but what about the rest?

    • 30 April 2010 at 12:42pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Of course, giving up the nuclear deterrent would be nice too. Maybe they're not so bad.

  • 30 April 2010 at 1:58pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    It’s presumably impossible for a politician to act on that thought – just as no sports team would ever prefer losing
    Sports could be a bad example. Look at the Chicago Black Sox.

  • 30 April 2010 at 6:01pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Where did I read that shrewd comment about this being one to lose?

  • 5 May 2010 at 2:22pm
    daveydaibach says:
    Camus123 – I think the match you're referring to came in the group stage of the 1982 World Cup. I would have thought someone with a tag based on Camus would have known that the Austrians and West Germans conspired to draw to prevent the Algerian team from qualifying for the next round! In any case, the Germans in fact did very well out of it, reaching the final. Not sure what that has to do with the election, mind you.

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