Prepare the rosettes, hone your ideas and get out the mustard. Even if you’re not a politician or an activist, there is no excuse for being unprepared for the election, says Nigel Farndale.
Short of leaving the country for the next few weeks, which seems a little drastic, you might want to consider the following strategies for surviving the General Election.
If you must visit places where members of the public forgather—farmer’s markets, shopping centres and so on—take along a selection of Pony Club rosettes: red, blue, yellow, green and purple. If you see a politician approaching, pull out a rosette that’s the colour of a rival party. The prospective parliamentary candidate should veer off, like a lurcher avoiding territory that’s already marked.
A useful tip for young mothers is to smear your baby’s head with mustard. No one is sure why, but politicians don’t like kissing babies’ heads that have been smeared with mustard.
Alternatively, you can ‘go to ground’ for the duration and then emerge blinking into the sunlight on May 8. If you do this, however, make sure that if there’s a knock on the door, you ignore it, even if you’re expecting a delivery from Fortnum & Mason. If you do open your door, by mistake, and find a prospective candidate standing there, leaflet in hand, put your fingers in your ears and make a la-la-la noise. For some reason, politicians cannot stand this. As they run off down the drive, release the hounds.
More difficult will be avoiding the subject of the election at ‘country suppers’, as they are known among the Chipping Norton set. This is because the six-week long election campaign is the one time when politics becomes an acceptable topic of conversation among dinner-party guests (religion is still, of course, taboo).
If you don’t have opinions—or worse, if you say ‘politics is boring’ or ‘all politicians are as bad as each other’—then you will be condemned as shallow and pointless.
Thus, you will need opinions, insights and conversational gambits—but you must judge your audience. It would be fine, for example, to say: ‘I gather David Cameron and Nigel Farage have both said they would like to repeal the ban on foxhunting.’ But think carefully before adding something like: ‘What I want to know is who’s going to bring back bear baiting?’
If you’ve only just met your fellow guest, say something enigmatic, but with feeling, such as ‘I wonder what Keynes would have said?’ or ‘it’s the geo-political consequences, I’m worried about’.
What you could also say is: ‘This is expected to be the most unexpected election in living memory.’ When pressed to justify this claim, you should deploy the word ‘mavericks’ and add that they come in all shapes, sizes and hairstyles. You should cite Boris Johnson, the Churchillian, Latin-quoting, zip-wire dangling Mayor of London as an example of ‘the maverick within’. He will be standing as an MP for the Tories in May, with a view to becoming leader of the party in June.
Then, there are the ‘mavericks without’, such as the oratorically fascinating ‘Gorgeous George’ Galloway. In the past, Mr Galloway has made headlines by praising Saddam Hussein and pretending to be a cat while appearing as a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother.
One of the biggest mavericks you might mention is Russell Brand, the comedian, actor and self-styled revolutionary. He’s such a maverick, he isn’t even standing in the election. On the contrary, he’s urging his ‘followers’ not to vote.
A maverick who manages to be within and without at the same time is Nicola Sturgeon (not to be confused with her fishy-sounding predecessor Alex Salmond). The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) lost the battle in last summer’s referendum on Scottish independence, but won the war. Her policies include not only scrapping Trident, but scrapping the entire UK. This year, it’s expected that the SNP will take some, if not all, of the seats Labour traditionally holds in Scotland, which it has always needed to form a government.
This point should raise a laugh, if your fellow guests are Tories, but if any of them vote Labour, they will be able to silence the laughter with just two words: Nigel Farage. The Barbour-wearing, pint-drinking leader of UKIP has not only become wildly popular with a sizable demographic of voters, he has proven it with a succession of wins in recent by-elections and European elections.
Another maverick worth mentioning at country suppers is Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, which is a ‘Loony Tunes alliance of druids and trots’, according to The Daily Telegraph.
The Greens are enjoying a huge surge in popularity, at the expense of Labour. As well as having the radical, eco-warrior policies you would expect, they also want to disband the army and the monarchy, end immigration controls and have meat-free Mondays. They would also scrap zoos.
However, Miss Bennett has provided a lead on when the whole thing gets too much for you. The radio interview she conducted to launch her campaign was deemed a ‘car crash’ after she had a ‘brain fade’. If it’s okay for politicians, then… um… oh, whatever.
This bodes well for what is expected to be the most entertaining aspect of the entire election, the TV debates. Hilariously, at one stage, it looked as if six party leaders and one empty chair may be taking part in them. You have to wonder why David Cameron didn’t see this fiasco coming.
But that’s the thing about elections: ‘events, dear boy, events’ get in the way.
As a broadsheet feature writer, I’ve covered every election since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 and all have included some unexpected drama or other. I was on Mr Blair’s battle bus, for example, when news came through of a bomb alert at the Grand National.
Something similar happened four years later, when I was with William Hague: news broke of the foot-and-mouth crisis. Both leaders responded to the news with calm dignity, statesmanlike authority and probably a little Schadenfreude, because they were in opposition and knew the government was going to get the blame.
The point is, whatever else they might be, elections are not boring and, pace the idiotic Russell Brand, they do matter. So don’t go to ground—you may come out of your hole on May 8 and wonder why you didn’t do something about it.
Two packs of Oliver Preston’s playing cards cost £12.50 (01666 502638; www.oliverpreston.com)