A few decades ago, an undergraduate who was, in his own opinion, hilarious, turned up on Ready Steady Cook with a beer, a Pot Noodle and a Mars bar.
Twenty minutes later, give or take a very small amount of shallow frying and the addition of one or two knobs of butter, he was presented with a meal that represented, at least in the view of Antony Worrall Thompson, the maximum potential culinary alchemy that could be visited upon these base ingredients. It was a beer, a Pot Noodle and a Mars bar.
This kind of thing used to be what political punditry was like. Lightly stir fry the blindingly obvious, toss over the inevitable, and here, for your delight and delectation is precisely what you already knew.
But not anymore. So rich, varied and abundant are the ingredients laid down upon the table by the Hartlepool by-election that there is no feast that cannot be worked up. All cravings are there to be satisfied. Brexit, Covid, Johnson, Corbyn, Starmer, Nigel Farage – all these can be added and subtracted in whatever quantities is so desired, to the point where even the taste of the result itself may yet be aggressively seasoned almost out of existence.
This morning we are led to believe the Conservatives have a jaw-dropping 17-point lead, and will certainly win the seat for the first time in 50 years.
This, apparently, is because the people have had enough of voting Labour and just getting decline and neglect. So why shouldn’t they give these new guys, the Tories, a try? They’ve only been in government for 11 years, after all.
Even Jeremy Corbyn held Hartlepool, so if Starmer loses it, well, Starmer’s even worse than Corbyn, right? Ah, but hang on, there was the Brexit Party last time, and they got 10,000 votes, so even though Corbyn won it, he lost it, really. He just got lucky.
Ah, but hang on again, the Brexit Party only did so well because it gave Labour voters who loved Brexit but could never vote Tory somebody else to vote for instead. And now they’re all going to vote Tory, so actually, actually actually, it is all Starmer’s fault, so Starmer needs to go, to be replaced with, erm, I don’t know. Maybe Mikel Arteta?
Have you seen this poll, look? You see! Look! No one cares about corruption. No one cares who paid for the Downing Street flat, so why don’t you all just stop going on about it? Why are you wasting your time investigating whether or not the law has been broken when look, look! The voters don’t care! It’s all just Westminster bubble nonsense. The only people who care about this are the sort of weirdos who actually understand how boring stories about potentially corrupt political donations work and this is why you’re all so out of touch and this is why Brexit happened.
Ah but the vaccine! The vaccine! Eventually, people will realise that Boris Johnson is a ruthlessly self-serving narcissist whose fecklessness led to tens of thousands of extra excess deaths from Covid-19 but for now, they’ve all had the vaccine and they think he’s great!
They love Brexit in Hartlepool. They are also quite old in Hartlepool, and now they’ve been vaccinated way before the French and the Germans, they think that Brexit has literally saved their lives. They think that Boris Johnson is their saviour.
If Labour loses on Thursday it will be in crisis! Crisis! Of course, Labour is already in crisis. That so very much has happened since December 2019 appears to be blinding people to the fact that it is not yet 18 months ago that Labour suffered its worst electoral defeat in 85 years.
It has terrifying amounts of ground to make up. In those 18 months, Boris Johnson has first done an appalling job handling a new disease, but secondly a very impressive job in handling its cure. How much ground Labour should be expected to make up in such bizarre circumstances is not an easy question to answer.
Come 2024, it is highly likely that the range of ingredients before the pundit, and indeed before the voter, will be somewhat simpler. The terms of that election will be much clearer. It won’t be a Brexit election or a Covid election. Boris Johnson will have had five years to deliver on a much-repeated promise to “level up” the country, which currently does not amount to, or even mean, very much at all.
If he has made meaningful progress on that front, Labour will be in even bigger trouble than ever. If they were empty words all along, and Johnson is not short of an empty word, then there will be all to play for.