The offices, bars and eateries of Westminster – not to mention constituency offices across the country – have been swept with fever in the period leading up to the Whitsun and summer parliamentary recesses.
I’m not talking about swine flu here, or H1N1 as the farming industry was quick to ask us to call it (after the pig had bolted, so to speak). No, the media-assisted panic which has been gripping politicians, most notably MPs on the Labour side, is the one concerning the continuing disintegration of government authority and strategy.
This was true even before the incredible furore about Members’ expenses, which has temporarily overshadowed all other political issues – but which is perhaps better seen as a symptom of a much wider disconnect between governors and governed.
It is one of the temperamental indicators of a political process conducted in the unwavering and unmerciful gaze of a 24/7 press circus that the aroma of success and the aroma of morbidity are the only two scents that news hounds really want to detect.
At the end of John Major’s regime and during the emergence of the Blair years, both could be smelled in abundance. On the government side, there were stories of sleaze, indecision and disloyalty; on the opposition benches, a growing confidence about a new young leader whose rhetoric promised a new era of change.
To many Westminster observers, the script seems to have been repeating itself again with hapless Gordon Brown (whose long-awaited opportunity to govern appears to have come tragically too late) and eager David Cameron (who is keen to steal Blair’s clothes after giving them a blue-green rinse which many in his party still question, though they will do just about anything for power.)
In the midst of this theatre of destruction and renewal sit the Liberal Democrats and other 'lesser forces' working out how to position themselves to break the mould, or at least to take advantage of its 180-degree swivel.
As usual, London is the centre of attention for most professional political barometer watchers. But more important things may be happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than they care to notice, including responses to the economic downturn which are more people-focused than the spin doctors at ‘the centre’ can dream of.
Just about everybody assumes that Brown has blown it and that caring Cameron is on his way to Downing Street. It is now just a question of manoeuvring for influence, opportunity or damage limitation – depending exactly where you find yourself in the present and coming electoral scramble.
But as they often say when commenting on seeming inevitabilities in football, “there are bound to be twists and turns ahead.” Expensesgate took more than a few by surprise. So far, it has merely confirmed a sense of irreversible doom around the Labour government. But further unexpected factors may still emerge.
In particular, the General Election, when it arrives, could end up offering a starker political choice than has been the case in recent years, after an unspoken consensus about neoliberal economics washed the reds, blues and oranges (if not greens) into an indistinct assortment of greyish hues.
Though the pundits talk of red Tories and blue Labourites busily ‘triangulating’, many keener observers feel that the ‘big two’ may soon revert to type in certain respects, with the post-Blairites shifting leftwards and the post-Thatcherites being feebler converts to ‘caring conservatism’ than they appear when the cameras are switched on.
Whether this will make any real difference to the outcome in a popular political culture driven by outrage, managerialism and quiet despair, is another matter.
Meanwhile, amid recess, recession and excess, watch out for more summer swivelling in parliamentary wonderland.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.
This article is adapted from the author’s regular ‘Westminster Watch’ column in Third Way magazine (http://www.thirdway.org.uk/), which provides Christian comment on culture and society.