Recently I bumped into Michael Heseltine on his way to a studio and greeted him with the only cliche that came into my mind: “Politics is interesting at the moment!” The sentence is being uttered one way or another around ten thousand dinner tables across the UK. Yet surprisingly Heseltine chose to demur. Again without hesitation he replied to me: “Politics is always interesting”.
He strode on to the studio, but if he had hung around a little longer I might have dared to respond to his observation by adding: “Michael, you are both right and wrong”.
Where Heseltine is spectacularly right is that politics can never be boring. It is a great never-ending human drama where fragile egos seek to resolve intense differences and impossible dilemmas through politics rather than force. When I worked at the BBC in the late 1990s some senior managers decided naively that politics had become boring and set up a review to make it more interesting. The review concluded with an unwatched programme presented by Rod Liddle on Saturday mornings, a series that ran for around ten minutes. This was not Liddle’s fault. The premise that politics had become boring was silly. In the late 1990s the dramas were different to those that had preceded them, the first Labour government for decades, the battles between Blair and Brown, the traumas of a Conservative party struggling to come to terms with its slaughter in 1997. Even so they were epic thrillers being played out partly in front of our eyes and also behind the scenes. It was the job of journalists to take voters behind those scenes. Some of us tried to do so and aged around one hundred years as we navigated the draining Blair/Brown duel. One columnist found the navigation between the two camps so nerve shredding he left Westminster to report the calmer politics of the Middle East.
But Heseltine is also wrong. Politics is especially interesting at the moment. Suddenly the human drama is crammed with sensational twists and turns. I am still getting over the sensational rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a rebellious backbench MP since 1983 who won the leadership by a landslide. Since his bizarre ascent there has been Brexit, the resignation of a Prime Minister who had won an unexpected majority at the election twelve months’ earlier, and the sacking of George Osborne widely regarded as the most powerful figure in British politics until he was sent to the backbenches. Now we have the cautious, shy but determined Theresa May. A relatively dull public figure who is leading in the most demanding of circumstances. She becomes interesting in spite of herself.
As journalists we have so many outlets to make sense of it all from Twitter to the newspaper column and many political programmes. They are all satisfying platforms. But counter intuitively in the era of a media revolution I have found the most old fashioned medium the best of the lot. Much used by nineteenth century journalists the stage cannot be beaten as a way of conveying the political epic, the strange characters, behind the scenes scheming, the tragic and the comic absurdities. Live performance offers something that a broadcasting studio, Twitter or a newspaper column cannot. There is the chance for an immediate dialogue with an audience, questions that can shed as much light as the answers, the laughter of an audience confirming that some of what is happening borders on the farcical as well as being deadly serious. The wider engagement suggests that there is an appetite for live events. No one wants to spend their lives in an empty room writing on Facebook or Twitter. Live performances work but only because the material is so vivid. What form will Brexit take? Can Theresa May satisfy most of her MPs in her deal with the rest of the EU? Will Corbyn be Labour leader at the time of the next general election? None of us know the answers for sure, but what fun we will have making sense of the historic themes that lie behind the questions. Take note Michael Heseltine, politics is always interesting and sometimes is more interesting that usual.
Steve Richards presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, is a regular panellist on BBC 1’s Sunday Politics, hosts a one man show Rock N Roll Politics and is an award winning political columnist.