• Party Games

    As I rose for the first time to speak from the Despatch Box in the House of Commons, I had the comfort of seeing that the Despatch Box had on it the inscription “A Gift from the People of New Zealand”. But I was also a little daunted, like so many before me, at the prospect of speaking to the serried ranks of hostile faces and the equally hostile noises confronting me – so close that I could almost touch them.

    I recalled the famous advice tendered by Harold Macmillan to a young front-bencher on a similar occasion, when he had confessed to a certain apprehension at facing, for the first time, his “enemies” at such close quarters and in such numbers. “Don’t worry,” Macmillan had said, “those are your opponents. Your enemies are behind you.”

    The story makes the point that politics is, in some senses, the best of all competitions. It is partly a team game, party against party – but it is at the same time an individual game; within each team, there are dozens of ambitious individuals, each vying against the others for advantage and preference.

    Now that I am only a spectator, I still find interest in detecting how these individual games are being played. They tend to be played wth the greatest energy when the party concerned is in opposition; this is because a party in government will constantly offer, on an almost day-by-day basis, as it launches new initiatives, opportunities for individual members of the party opposite to make an attack.

    Even the newest arrival can score brownie points by discomforting a minister opposite, with a well-timed and accurate sortie – and doing so is a fail-safe way of attracting attention and support from one’s colleagues. That support is hugely necessary and valuable when it comes to internal party ballots on issues like leadership contests and the pecking order for ministerial positions.

    That is why the careful student of politics will have noticed that any new government initiative will always be met by a comment – usually hostile – from an opposition spokesperson. The comment may or may not be to the point, but it is not what is said that counts. The purpose is often simply to get one’s name into the public eye and ear, and to register with one’s colleagues (and the party leader) that it has been made – that way lies promotion.

    The next time, dear reader, that you hear such a comment being made, you should reflect on the possibility that it may have little to do with the subject, or with the fortunes of the political party of which the commenter is a member, and much more to do with the internal games being played against each other by the individual members of that party.

    It is also possible to discern patterns – the same names will often crop up repeatedly, and that is particularly true when the party leadership may not be entirely secure or settled. There is nothing like the prospect of a leadership contest to stimulate a frenzy of activity from hopeful potential candidates.

    You will gather from all this that a certain cynicism is useful and appropriate when assessing the course of a public debate on a particular issue. Not all is always what it seems – politics in a parliamentary democracy is a game played by a range of participants for a variety of different reasons – and often their own.

    Bryan Gould
    21 February 2021