It used to be so simple. We didn’t know exactly when an election was going to take place, so we didn’t have people counting down meticulously until polling day.
And because we had no countdown, we had no need for narratives: giant arcs of conjecture and analysis, furnishing every event as a means to an end and placing each announcement, poll and rumour inside a grand multi-purpose context (or conspiracy).
I’ve counted no fewer than seven narratives that are currently unspooling their way to the general election. There are probably more. How many have you spotted – and which one (if any) is right?
1. Boris Johnson v David Cameron
The mayor of London knows the prime minister is going to lose the election, runs this narrative, and everything he does is therefore geared towards winning the Tory leadership contest that will inevitably follow. This in turn is governing the behaviour of other potential future Tory leaders: George Osborne and Theresa May principally, but also courtiers and kingmakers such as cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, ex-cabinet ministers Liam Fox and Owen Paterson, all the way down to backbenchers like Zac Goldsmith, who Boris will “anoint” his chosen successor in City Hall. It’s not just parts of the media that love this narrative. Labour likes it as well, as it allows them to dust down one of their most successful narratives of the 1990s: “The Tories are too busy fighting among themselves to run the country”.
2. All the polls are completely wrong
Ignore every outcome suggested by the current opinion polls, this narrative says. The state of play at present bears no relation to how things will look come the election, by which time Labour’s lead will have vanished, the Tories will be ahead, the Lib Dems will be back up in the mid-teens and Ukip will have collapsed. This isn’t just wishful thinking on the part of both right and left-wing commentators, however. This is a narrative that is influenced by “history” and by “trends”, such as opposition parties always losing support as an election nears, the Lib Dems always benefitting from extra publicity and fringe parties getting squeezed. In conclusion, this narrative says, Labour is doomed and should already be preparing to choose a new leader.
3. Ukip has everyone on the run
Nigel Farage and co are set to win a clutch of seats at the election, this narrative runs, and the other parties are panicking over how to stop them. It might be that they don’t know how to stop Ukip, can’t agree how to stop Ukip, or are simply too terrified to know what to think. But there is a threat and it is growing by the day. It’s in Ukip’s own interest to support this narrative, naturally. There’s something to be said for the other parties acknowledging its existence, however, if only to avoid complacency and ensure their respective supporters bother to turn out to vote.
4. Ed Miliband, accidental prime minister
This narrative is based on the notion that if Miliband does become prime minister, it will be in spite of rather than because of anything he himself has done. It’s a slightly less belligerent narrative than “all the polls are completely wrong”, because it is not actively hostile towards the Labour leader, more politely dismissive. Miliband will blunder into Downing Street, the narrative runs, thanks to a bias in the electoral system, Lib Dem voters in 2010 switching back to Labour, and Ukip sucking votes away from the Tories. He will then blunder out of Downing Street a few years later having achieved very little of substance while leaving the country a worst place than he found it.
5. The economy will win it for the Tories
Once people start feeling the recovery, really feeling it, so support for the Tories will increase and David Cameron will be safely back in Downing Street. That’s the basis of this narrative, which serves to provide reassurance to Tory MPs and foster alarm among other parties. It is only a matter of time, this theory continues, before all those great statistics about unemployment, inflation, interest rates and growth translate into a boost in the polls for the Conservatives (though not their coalition partners the Lib Dems). Toss in a giveaway Budget in March 2015, with maybe even a few tax cuts, and Cameron’s second term is nigh-on assured – quite possibly as the head of a Conservative majority government.
6. The Lib Dems are doomed
The general election will see the third party of British politics reduced to its smallest size since 1979, and there’s little Nick Clegg or any of his party can do about it. This narrative paints nothing but gloom for the Liberal Democrats, and is tinged with relish at the idea of the party being “put in its place” after having the gall to make it into government. It takes it for granted that the Lib Dems will lose seats both to Labour and the Tories, will see their total number of MPs more than halved, and will be unable to form a new coalition with either of the main parties, both of whom would rather run minority governments than share power ever again. It also assumes Clegg is for the chop, and that the Lib Dems will receive no credit whatsoever for the fledgling economic recovery.
7. Politics is broken
We are pretty much finished as a cohesive nation, assumes this narrative, because nobody trusts MPs anymore and our electoral system cannot cope with a political tradition that is fracturing and breaking down. Hence the popularity of “mavericks” such as George Galloway, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson; hence the ultra-low turnouts in local and European elections; hence the momentum of the campaign for Scottish independence; hence the fear and loathing directed towards anybody or anything that people consider to be “not one of us”. It doesn’t matter who wins the election, concludes this narrative; we are a country that is in decline and breaking up, and no party or prime minister can fix it. So best go and tend your own garden – that’s if HS2 hasn’t ploughed straight through it.