Irecently told someone that the day after the 2015 election was the worst of my life. It wasn’t much of an overstatement. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was so awful, so stupid and cynical and cruel in its austerity programme, that the news that the Tories, in defiance of all the opinion polls, had been rewarded for it with a majority – that George Osborne would continue as chancellor – was too much to bear. Ed Balls, Osborne’s opposite number, the man who would have become chancellor had Labour won, lost his seat by 0.9 per cent of the vote. You would think it must have been the worst day of his life. And yet, eight years later, the nation woke on the wrong side of the bed as usual to the news that Osborne and Balls, now both ex-MPs, are to host an economics podcast together. ‘Ed and I are frenemies,’ Osborne said in the press release, revealing that he doesn’t understand the phrase. ‘Once bitter foes, and now firm friends.’ Hey bozo: a ‘frenemy’ still has to be your enemy. The accompanying photograph shows them gazing into each other’s eyes. They now plan to use ‘all our experience’ to ‘deliver a weekly dose of clarity for citizens, voters, business owners, financial professionals and anyone with an interest in making sense of the economic realities that shape our policy choices’. This will be a different dose of clarity, presumably, from the one offered by our bank statements.
How can Balls be ‘firm friends’ with a man whose political decisions are still working their way through the body politic like a slow-acting poison, and what does this coupling tell us about the choice we were presented with in 2015? George and Ed are trying to hoover up the crumbs left by Rory (Stewart) and Alastair (Campbell), whose podcast, The Rest Is Politics, is a freak sensation – even selling out the Royal Albert Hall for a live recording – and a source of succulent profit. George and Ed, we know, are real good pals, but Rory and Alastair were an arranged marriage. The podcast producers had suggested Dominic Cummings for Alastair’s Tory opposite (‘Disaster. Not going to happen’). He asked his Twitter followers for help: who did they want? Rory, by a margin, but they also – surprise – fancied Rory’s fellow anti-Boris Tory Remainers: Ken Clarke, William Hague, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve. Rory and Alastair had only met once, at a garden party hosted by the right-wing Remainer Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, but, phew, they hit it off. In fact, they were so happy bashing Boris together that when he resigned six months into the podcast, they wondered whether they could continue. When there’s a danger of disagreement, Rory likes to say ‘Hmm, very good,’ and change the subject.
For now, we can only smack our lips at the prospect of an hour a week with George and Ed, but they are no more likely than Rory and Alastair to be at each other’s throats – we are promised, distressingly, ‘laughs along the way’. Both productions are anchored by former denizens of Westminster, men of a certain age whose appeal seems to be an avuncular independence from the partisan tit-for-tat of politics. From here it is only a short step to that holy refuge, the ‘centre ground’. After watching Rory and Alastair live, Rachel Cooke noted in the Observer ‘how often they tend to agree’ and obligingly described them as the ‘centre ground … in human form’.
People are said to be sick and tired of politics. We’re told they’re disengaged and dangerously cynical. But perhaps the success of Campbell and Stewart’s podcast tells a different story. It is politicians and their behaviour that appal us. The dissemination of important, interesting information is another matter altogether. Ideas: some of us crave those still.
But what ideas, and whose?
Campbell and Stewart are, in fact, and whatever their pretensions, still trading as politicians: Campbell has a new book with the subtitle Why Politics Has Gone So Wrong, and How You Can Help Fix It; Stewart has one forthcoming called Politics on the Edge. They thrive on the blurring of their identities, being both out and in. Campbell appears on TV as a Labour talking head and Stewart, who claims that the British political system is in ruins, jollied into the king’s coronation in his privy counsellor’s uniform. Osborne was for three years Evgeny Lebedev’s editor at the Evening Standard, tried to become director of the IMF and is now chair of the British Museum; Balls is married to the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, and recently had to deny rumours he was planning a return to Parliament. That these four men can be taken to represent a depoliticised ‘centre ground’ only shows how microscopically, and myopically, the concept is understood in this country. It is also an indictment of the political and media class. The not so implicit message is that you have to be out of Parliament, and off the BBC or mainstream broadcasters, to be perceived as honest, a message echoed by the success of The News Agents, a daily podcast hosted by Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall, all of them glowing with health after their departure from the Beeb.
What are the consequences for politics if the supposed grown-ups are outside the room? For Osborne, Balls, Stewart and Campbell, it means power without responsibility, armchair politics with advertising revenue, status acquired in public service leveraged for private gain. With their lofty commentary and self-promotion, they seem more likely to intensify than to counter cynicism about and distrust in our institutions. It’s not that the distrust isn’t merited, but that the leisurely dad gab (‘It’s an opportunity for me to talk boringly about things like GDP,’ says Rory) sells us a radically impoverished idea of what politics is, or might be. Politics should be what happens when vying social and economic interests find expression in protest and petition, disagreement and debate. Political parties exist to prevent Parliament dissolving into a swill of ideas; they establish common grounds for action, decide on policy responses and marshal votes to pass laws intended to provide solutions. We might not like these solutions, but at least they are attempts to implement change.
It’s easy, when you don’t have responsibility, to make a career out of open-minded reasonableness. The danger for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is that voters won’t rally behind the centre ground in human form. Starmer says he wants to find out ‘what works’, but as the polls numbingly repeat, what the public wants is to know what Labour believes in. They don’t want a government that thinks it’s a podcast.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.