Are MPs conspiring to smuggle an alternative leader into parliament? Who are the shadowy figures who tried to inveigle a respectable Colonel into their treacherous plot? Did the Prime Minister drink wine while sacking his Ministers? Did he offer them a glass? Did he make them cry?
Westminster politics is becoming more and more like a soap opera. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately – whatever would people think of it if they were paying attention?) it is a soap opera that nobody wants to watch. For voters, the reshuffle – which has dominated political coverage since before it was announced – is part of soap opera politics.
Even for those who have noticed, it falls squarely outside the category of Things That Matter. That is not to say it was unimportant; it matters to the extent that we are now more, or less, likely to govern well and keep our promises. On that score, time will tell, but I cannot help but find one or two of the decisions mystifying – the removal of Nick Gibb, for example, who has a concrete achievement to his name (and how many Ministers can say that?) in improving the way primary school children are taught to read, makes you wonder whether delivery was the driving factor in all decisions. Those who think reshuffles are mainly a tool for “party management” would do well to remember that it is delivery that wins and loses elections. It is losing parties that are unmanageable, just as winning parties are disciplined, not the other way round. Outside Westminster, then, nothing has changed since last week.
Now that the Olympics are over it’s back to serious business and – at the risk of repeating myself – time to refocus on the voters. This is easier said than done, not least because (as the reshuffle sideshow proves) political reporters are even more fascinated by the process of politics than we are. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of talking about ourselves. I do not mean to idealise the voters’ desire for substance – they don’t want to read policy pamphlets, they just want to feel that we are getting on with the job. They don’t have to find us fascinating, but nor do we need to give them reasons to find us exasperating.
One sure way to do this over the next few weeks would be to start grumbling openly about our coalition partners. Some Tories apparently find the Lib Dems obstructive and unreliable and difficult and sanctimonious. I can’t think why. But we must resist the temptation (however overwhelming it may sometimes be) to tell the public so. Complaining to the electorate that our colleagues in government are behaving badly will hardly impress them. Voters can get that sort of thing from their children at home, and after the long summer holiday they have probably had enough of it. A grown-up administration is the least they expect; if we can’t even manage that they are hardly likely to ask us to govern alone.
The new political season will be long and bruising. Economic prospects remain uncertain and there are more cuts to come; people feel their budgets squeezed as the cost of living rises; our poll deficit persists as voters are uncertain of Tory priorities. In Project Blueprint Phase 3, published in July, I set out four tests for all Conservative activity: does it show we have the right priorities? Does it show strong leadership? Does it show we are on the side of the right people? Does it offer some reassurance about the party’s character and motives?
Anything that suggests we are less interested in the voters than we are in ourselves takes us further from the majority we want. It is time for the summer soap opera to end.