Tested to destruction

How to survive the short campaign

In John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps, published exactly 100 years ago, the number 39 assumes great mystery. In the book, it is revealed to be the number of steps in a Kent coastal town leading to a shipload of dastardly German spies. In one of the film adaptations, it is the number of steps up to Big Ben in the Westminster clock tower.

But for any candidate in the general election, 39 will be seared into the memory as the number of days of the ‘short’ campaign, from the dissolution of parliament at the end of March to polling day on 7 May.

It is called the short campaign to distinguish it from the ‘long’ campaign which began in December 2014. But it will not feel short. It will feel like the final half-mile in a marathon, when the lactic acid burns your muscles and your body screams for relief.

There are candidates, such as Polly Billington in Thurrock (selected in November 2011), who were selected early in the parliament, and have been working flat out ever since. It has been a long, hard uphill climb. For all the advantage of certainty that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act affords us, the finishing line does not arrive any faster.

The political parties run their war books, in the surefire knowledge that their plans will not survive the first contact with the enemy. The compelling drama of any campaign comes in the spontaneous events. The war of ‘Jennifer’s ear’ knocked Labour’s campaign off course in 1992. In 1997 John Major’s helicopter dash around the United Kingdom in a single day, to ‘save the union’, unleashed a final bout of energy from a campaign which looked beaten from the start. The CCHQ press officers’ mobiles had their ringtones set to play ‘Mission Impossible’.

In 2001 the campaign is only remembered for John Prescott punching Craig Evans in Rhyl. In 2005, Tony Blair handed Gordon Brown an ice cream in Gillingham, in an unscripted moment of chumminess. Labour won the Kent seat with a majority of 254.

The test of a political party in the short campaign is not the strength of its messages nor the logistical brilliance of its grid, it is the way it behaves when the wheels come off. That is when its collective character is tested to destruction. 2015 will be no different.

But what of the candidates? A candidate, according to many election agents, is a mere legal necessity. Candidates occupy a unique leadership position in the campaign. They must motivate others, when they themselves feel despair. They must take out teams on the doorstep, when all they want is to sleep. They must be nice about people’s families, as they ignore their own. They must smile in defeat, and appear humble in victory.

While Barack Obama has a dresser to put that crisp white shirt on his back every few hours, our candidates do not. So they must remember to get their laundry and ironing done. They must wear shoes that are business-smart, but running-shoe resilient. There is a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Adlai Stevenson, Democrat candidate in the 1952 presidential election, with a hole in his shoe, worn through by campaigning. Nice image, but no good on the wet streets of Carlisle or Cardiff.

Candidates need to eat and drink, and not Diet Coke and pizza. They need to eat healthily and hydrate frequently, like an athlete in training. If possible, they should avoid alcohol. No one likes a drunk. Every candidate is obsessed with their phones and the political gossip that Twitter delivers, but there must be time to stop and stare too. Candidates’ mental health is as important as the state of their aching limbs. A good agent, friend or loyal spouse should take the candidate’s phone away for an hour a day, to allow them to see the horizon.

Most candidates in the 2015 general election will lose, but 650 will win. For them, the count will bring triumph and elation. This is the most dangerous moment. On no account must they allow years of pent-up loathing towards their competitors spill over into insults. Remember Obama’s words in Chicago in November 2008, on the day he won the presidency: ‘This victory belongs to you’. We expect humble stoicism from the victor, not a chorus of ‘We are the champions’.

And for the losers? The manner of their losing determines the swiftness of their return. In 1997, Michael Portillo’s graceful defeat secured a rapid return to parliament in the Kensington and Chelsea byelection in November 1999. By contrast, David Mellor’s ill-tempered defeat and rant from the stage presaged only a career in talk radio and being rude to cabbies. Most members of parliament, save the lucky few, have been tempered by standing and tasting defeat. Of the current shadow cabinet, six members have stood on the stage and been declared the loser. This is considered character-building.

So the advice is simple: stay sober, upbeat, alert, inspirational, magnanimous, humble and avoid thumping anyone. And for 100 or so of you, leave your constituencies and prepare for government.

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