Once upon a time, there was a political party. It was neither a very large nor a particularly successful party, but it somehow managed to stumble along from election to election without disappearing into oblivion.
Decade after decade passed, and a certain pattern became remarkably consistent - about half way between each General Election, the party would succeed in winning a stunning by-election victory, often apparently surprising itself as much as anyone else. These would always be declared 'Orpington' moments, after one of the very first such events, and would be presented as the harbinger of a ‘mould-breaking’ change in British politics. The party’s members were always exhorted to prepare themselves for greater things – even for forming a complete government on one memorable occasion.
But false dawns can be very misleading, and it never was to be; 'Orpingtons' almost always got reversed very rapidly, and the mould quietly settled back in its place.
The party tried a number of other tactics, even merging itself with another party in an attempt to combine their market share, only to find that two plus two rarely came to a total as high as three, let alone the expected five (arithmetic was never one of their stronger points).
Then something quite remarkable seemed to be happening. Over three elections - 1997, 2001, and 2005 - the party managed to make some major strides forward, hitting a level of seats in 2005 which was quite unprecedented for a third party, and was the largest they had achieved for a very, very long time.
With a popular leader who managed to communicate effectively with the electorate – striking a particularly effective note with young people – coupled with careful targeting, and non-stop campaigning, who could know where this would lead? They immediately recognised that something needed to be done. They looked at the situation long and hard, and decided that the obvious thing to do was to sack their leader. They needed a reason of course, and settled on the rather spurious (in the sense that if taken to its logical conclusion, it would disqualify a large number of other politicians) fact that the leader was known to be rather fond of a drink or ten.
It was obvious to all that what they really needed was someone older; someone largely unknown. If he were also to appear aloof and as though he were living in bygone days, so much the better. And so it was, and the plan worked beautifully. The party faded back into the scenery, with its voter base dissipating rapidly. Some members even started searching their cupboards for their old sandals, so powerful were their reminiscences.
Seeing that the London branch had so much pleasure in all this, the Welsh branch decided to join in; after all, why should Wales be left out? First, they decided that, with only six of them in their local school, they should threaten the bigger children that they would take their ball home unless they were allowed to set the rules. When the bigger children told them what to do with their ball, they fought amongst themselves until the ball burst open.
With no-one else wanting to play with them any more, no ball left to play with, and not enough players to form a team of their own, the way ahead was obvious. It was time to fight over who should be captain. The existing captain said that he wanted time to think about this, but two of the others said that according to their copies of the rules, the team had to hold an election, and they both wanted to be captain. Two of the others also wanted to be captain, but didn’t say so, and the only one who didn’t want to be captain felt badly ignored.
Then it emerged that the man who thought he was the captain wasn’t really the captain at all – the real captain was one of the pupils from London who had been having a lot of fun recently with two young twins and their mother. Although he was the real captain, he suddenly remembered that he had important business to attend to in Montgomeryshire, and decided that he’d give up being Welsh captain so that he could concentrate on that - and his young friends.
With attention finally returning to him, the other Welsh captain decided that he would indeed give up – but not yet – and used his copy of the rule book to convince the two who said they wanted to be captain (as well as the two who wanted to be captain but hadn't said so yet) that they should shut up because he was bigger than them, and anyway no two of them could agree with each other as to what to do, and until two of them could agree on something, there was nothing that they could do. The one who didn’t want to be captain still felt ignored and forgotten.
Dramatically, attention then switched back to the London branch who decided that they’d had so much fun the last time that they’d sacked a leader that they’d do it again, but this time, they’d use against him all the reasons that had made him so attractive in the first place – his age, aloofness, lack of effective communications skills and so on.
The real Welsh captain – the one with urgent business in Montgomeryshire – then decided that although he’d given up being captain of the Welsh branch, he'd quite like to become one of the captains of the London branch (for they had two of those as well), even though that might make it difficult to attend to his business in Montgomeryshire.
In next week’s episode – how I successfully captained the Titanic to its planned rendezvous with the iceberg, by A Libdem.