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They’re Off!

The big news in Britain today is that a leading politician gave a straight answer to a direct question, an event considered sufficiently rare as to merit front-page coverage.

“Yes” was the single-word response, and it came from no less a renowned equivocator and bet-hedger than the Prime Minister.

The question asked was whether the government plans to raise the value added tax.  It was asked during Prime Minister’s Question time in the House of Commons, by Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition, who presumably expected Mr. Cameron to wriggle and waffle, thereby planting in the public mind the suspicion that raising VAT was exactly what the government would do, should it win the forthcoming election.

The Tory benches erupted in delight, revelling in Mr. Miliband’s stunned discomfiture, the look of a child who has just dropped his ice cream.  Mr. Cameron then raised more cheers by turning the tables.  Would a Labour government increase the National Insurance rate?  Mr. Miliband did not follow Mr. Cameron’s lead with his own one-word answer, which in this case, of course, was supposed to be No.

So now, in the vernacular of horseracing, they’re off.  The election campaign is underway, the national vote less than six weeks away.  Some observers would say it has been in full swing for the past six months. 

The parties remain, as they have been for months, neck-and-neck in the opinion polls.  Some find this curious, especially those who are inclined to say, at cocktail parties, things like, “It’s the economy stupid”.  The British economy is indeed, at least in statistical terms, booming (the highest growth rate in Europe, unemployment falling rapidly, inflation at zero, interest rates not much higher).  Yet still the Conservatives are failing to ‘catch on’.  

But then so is Labour. 

This is largely the result of the ‘Miliband’ problem.  Party loyalists respond with “What problem?”  The rest point to Ed’s lack of credibility as a champion of the down-trodden workers (he is seen by many as an Islington socialist of the champagne variety) and his uncanny knack of treading in a cow pat even when walking across fields where no cows have grazed.

There was the curious incident of the Labour Party Conference speech, in which Ed essentially forgot to talk about the economy.  That was soon followed by the now infamous bacon sandwich ‘photo opportunity’, showing Ed on national television struggling to get his not insubstantial mouth around the thing as if it were an unpeeled grapefruit covered in lard.    

Ed’s real problem, though, at least according to my own taproom findings in blue-collar areas, is that any man who is prepared to stab his own brother in the back in order to secure the party’s nomination can’t be trusted with anything, least of all representing Britain in the corridors of power.  Brother David, incidentally, is said to be waiting for Ed to blow the election before riding to the party’s rescue in an act of sweet revenge. 

All this may well change over the next six weeks.  If two weeks is a long time in politics, as one practitioner once said, then there is ample time for new cow pats to appear, even where no cows exist – perhaps especially where no cows exist.

The race is on, and in keeping with my occasional futile visits to the track, I have no more idea as to the likely winner than my fourteen-week old grandson – probably less.

Foreign readers of this column meanwhile may rest assured that I will be keeping an eye on events and will report them with all the lack of insight that I can muster.

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