Politicians rarely find it easy to say sorry but, in April, culture secretary Maria Miller did manage to find a 32-second window in her diary to come to the House of Commons to mutter: “Yeah whatevs I dun nuthin wrong and though I’m sayin soz I don’t mean it cos what’s wrong with claimin to live in wun house and livin in anuva I mean everywunz at it innit?”
One of the shortest parliamentary apologies on record was the preface to one of the longest general election campaigns. The unforeseen consequence of the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011, which was introduced to ensure the coalition’s survival for five years, was that parliament had little to do in the government’s final year. Time and again, the then leader of the house, Andrew Lansley, was forced to explain why there wasn’t much government business going on; his nadir came when he had to find a reason, other than inactivity, why the Commons was being prorogued a week earlier than usual at Easter. “I am surprised at the honourable lady’s argument that we are not busy,” he said wearily, before the tumbleweed carried him away. “We are busy. When we return from recess, we have a busy two days.”
Ed Miliband and David Cameron found they had rather more time on their hands than Lansley and used it to try to win hearts and minds. Starting with the MPs of their own parties. Having chosen Ed as its party leader four years previously primarily because he wasn’t his brother David, Labour was now having second thoughts; Miliband’s speech to the party conference in September did not help his cause.
“Now here’s the thing, friends,” he said. “The other day I had a bit of a snuffle and Justine thought it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to go for a walk in Primrose Hill. So I didn’t get to meet Alexandra and Andy who were out there waiting to tell me how worried they were about the deficit … ” Ever since this deficit deficit, Ed has been playing catch-up – with some success recently, after George Osborne’s autumn statement revealed that not only had the Tories failed to meet their own commitments on cutting the deficit, but they were planning to take Britain’s welfare spending back to the 1930s. By and large, the British people prefer their lives to be made miserable by politicians who just aren’t very good at their job rather than by those who aren’t very good at their job and hate them into the bargain.
The Conservative leader also came under pressure from his own party on Europe and immigration, and found himself being dragged further and further to the right to stop haemorrhaging MPs to Ukip. He didn’t seem to find the experience wholly disagreeable. Ukip, meanwhile, went from strength to strength – as much because it wasn’t either Labour or the Tories as for its policies. Which wasn’t wholly surprising as it didn’t have much to say on anything but immigration and Europe. Those, too, had elements of contradiction, with Nigel Farage aligning himself with a Polish holocaust denier to screw an extra £1.5m in expenses from the EU so he didn’t have to go to Brussels. Ukip’s biggest attraction, though, was its nominative determinism. Mark Reckless. Natasha Bolter. Roger Bird. If it fields Ray Cyst, Fidel Expenses and Lee Gover as candidates next May, it could win by a landslide.
The biggest event of the year – a far bigger one than Cameron ever anticipated several years ago when he had congratulated himself on his negotiation skills for keeping devo max off the ballot paper – was the Scottish referendum. As everyone south of the border, including the Queen – “If you fark this arp, Cameron, your farking feet won’t touch the farking grindæ” – hit Defcon 1, the Scots were assured of devo max even before the first vote had been cast, after Gordon Brown had been sent north to vow to voters they could have anything – sunshine, cash, yachts – as long as they didn’t vote for independence.
Somewhere along the way the vow, which is ordinarily worth 12 commitments or 4 pledges, became upgraded to a solemn vow. This was unprecedented. No one quite knew just what a solemn vow entailed; they soon found out. It was a vow to which Evel strings could be attached the next day. Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.
South of the border, other politicians found themselves running round in circles trying to prevent the country unravelling through their own incompetence. Theresa May discovered the government’s longterm economic plan was working so well that far more people than she expected wanted to get the hell out of the country and go on holiday shortly after she had closed half the passport offices, refused to admit there was anyone other than acquaintances of Leon Brittan to head the child abuse inquiry and was astonished to find that net migration was about 200,000 more than she expected. Despite all this, she managed to see off the education secretary, Michael Gove, in what was seen as a battle to succeed Cameron. Gove has rarely been seen in the Commons since.
One can’t say the same for Iain Duncan Smith who repeatedly insists that the universal credit system, that has so far cost £2.2bn to deliver payments to about 231 people, is a once-in-a-lifetime success story. Let’s hope so. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems all but became an endangered species. “The reason I was in Penzance for the autumn statement” said the incredible shrinking man, “was that if I’d gone any further west I’d have drowned.” Some might say he already has.
Into these dizzy waves of over-achievement stepped Russell Brand. “Yeah mate I love your tits love sorry I dont mean to be sexist you know what money is shit no one should have any thing is the world is much deeper than anyone knows did I mention I use to take a lot of smack there’s this weird psychic thing going on with other planets and money is shit and the best thing really is not to vote stop looking at me chest hairs … ” For want of anything better to believe in at Christmas, some chose to call him the Messiah. Hallefuckinglujah.
• I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: A Short Guide to Modern Politics, the Coalition and the General Election by John Crace is published by Bantam at £12.99 and is available through the Guardian Bookshop
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010