Many years ago, I received a letter of thanks from the great political commentator Alan Watkins, who died at the weekend aged 77. Typically our correspondence had nothing to do with politics. Watkins wrote a column about beer for a magazine (I forget which) and I wrote to him to suggest that bars in the House of Commons should stock Pilsner Urquell. He wrote back to thank me and said he would follow the idea up. I’ve no idea whether or not he did, but I am certain that he is enjoying a celestial tipple and laughing his head off at the current contortions in Westminster.
But Watkins would have been dismayed at the cant repeatedly broadcast about elected and non-elected prime ministers. The television debates seemed to have persuaded some people that we just had a presidential election. We didn’t – and as the result showed all the showbiz hype counted as nothing when weighed against ties of kinship and class. Watkins in his last column predicted that Cleggmania would not translate into votes and he was right. He would have relished the irony of Nick Clegg playing kingmaker even though his party fared poorly.
The role of prime minister is an accident of history. There is no real ‘first’ prime minister and the position was resisted by those who held the office in the 18th century. How very different to the attitude of our modern pols who will do, say and agree to just about anything to get the measure of the Number 10 curtains. For anyone who is interested, the modern prime minister is the leader of the part that commands a majority in the House of Commons. He or she will have been elected as a member of parliament and elected as party leader. The public elects local MPs.
The current situation is exactly what we voted for. In his final column Watkins wrote: “Mr Clegg is adept at the soft answer that turneth away wrath.” Clegg is going to need that skill is spades over the coming weeks.