Belated election thoughts, part 3: the Great Flirtation

"The bromance of the century." Picture courtesy the News of the World.

Note: this is the third of a series of posts with belated thoughts on the General Election.

When I watched the now-famous rose garden press conference on 12 May, I, like everyone else, was struck by the easy-going chemistry between our new Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. We seemed to be watching the beginnings of a potentially blossoming friendship. Despite the widespread teeth-gnashing over the workability and legitimacy of the coalition, the tone of the affair seemed a breath of fresh air.

I wasn’t alone in this. The next day, the media had a field day. In a charmingly gushing piece, the Times‘ Matthew Parris described the conference as “something approaching a philosophical spasm.”

After any election there’s usually a sweet, unrehearsed moment of optimism the media seizes on – think of poor Cherie picking up the milk on 2nd May, 1997. But this was something else: the media was captivated by the idea of Cameron & Clegg as an item.

The Independent dubbed the pair “Britain’s new power couple” and “the Bromance of the Century.” The Mail talked about the “No. 10 love-in”. The Express simply declared, “It’s Love.”

The Times‘ Ann Treneman milked a whole column out of the rose garden conference as a wedding. “The only thing missing was a small orchestra and a tremulous song by Andrew Lloyd Webber,” she snarked.

Others preferred to up the homosexual implications by calling it not a marriage but a civil partnership. “The marriage – or was it a civil partnership – between Tories and Lib Dems has taken place. Now they must make it work,” said The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh.

“It was not so much a love-in as the exchanging of vows at a political civil partnership ceremony,” said Nick Robinson. Fraser Nelson, even while pointing out the coalition’s many faultlines, also called it a “civil partnership.”

Even the FT, for heaven’s sake, got in on the act.

Downing Street’s rose garden was tastefully arranged as if in readiness for a wedding; though in this case it was more of a civil partnership. The grass was verdant; the sun shone; the blossom was in full bloom.

The two young men were nicely turned out and full of sweet things to say about each other. Oh yes, this is going to be a very civil partnership.

This was just the kind of thing Lord Tebbit has been warning about. We’d seen them earlier on the steps of Number 10 and – well, frankly, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

“The very kind of thing Lord Tebbit has been warning about” is a double entendre worthy of Carry On Conservatives.

And the media wasn’t alone – the idea of Cameron and Clegg as a couple captured the public’s attention too. Within 24 hours of the rose garden conference, Twitter had already exploded with shared links of Cam-Clegg “slash fiction.”

That, to the uninitiated, means fiction created by members of the public portraying characters from TV in homosexual relationships. I won’t extract too much, but to give you the slightest idea, here’s a titbit from a story called simply “Coalition”:

Dave wakes one morning hot and sticky, with images of Nick Clegg writhing against him still echoing in his head. He heads straight for the shower, desperately reassuring himself that it’s only a dream, that it means nothing.

Yet the first time he catches Nick’s eye in Birmingham, he feels an uncomfortable squirming in his stomach. And this time, he knows what it means.

You get the gist. It all led one bewildered poster at the forum DigitalSpy to ask, “are Cameron and Clegg becoming gay icons?”

“His boyband good looks and his easy charm”

What on earth are we to make of all this? Much ink has been split trying to explain the remarkable impression these two men’s chemistry has made on the country. Some have noted that both needs the other to restrain the difficult fringes of their parties – the Right for Cameron, the Left for Clegg. Others have pointed out that Cameron and Clegg share a public-school background and are close together in age.

I think there’s a simpler explanation. While Clegg and Cameron did put on a good show of liking each other, that doesn’t explain the sheer level of public hubbub about them. The explanation is this: Clegg is pretty.

Not matinee-idol pretty, admittedly. But by politician standards, Clegg is a positive looker – and, crucially, in a soft-featured, boyish way. He has what the writer of “Coalition” called, with only a little exaggeration, “boyband good looks and his easy charm.”

As a result, he has an air of sensitivity about him which makes him seem, when cheerful, rather flirtatious. Note this shot, of the aftermath of the famous reference to Clegg having previously been Cameron’s idea of a joke:

Mindlessly thieved from the Times.

It falls to Cameron to pull the grotesque face. Clegg just looks, coquettishly, down at the floor.

Many of the most overtly sexualised descriptions of the rose garden press conference paint Clegg as, in one way or another, the woman in the affair. “The hundred or so velvet chairs were arranged on the lawn, one side for the groom, the other for the other slightly more boyish groomette,” said Ann Treneman, and it’s pretty clear which way round the two are.

It’s striking how many of the soubriquets that attach to Clegg can be related to his looks. That easygoing charm, after all, is surely that of a handsome man in the world of grim-featured gargoyles that is Westminster.

Clegg’s relaxed confidence in the presence of men nominally his superior, so in evidence at the debates, is the confidence of a man whose appearance makes people want to talk to him, not move away. Clegg is mere months younger than Cameron, but it’s Clegg who is perpetually associated in the media with youth and vigour.

This isn’t to belittle the clearly genuine liking the men appear, from initial appearances, to be developing for one another. But the sheer gossipy excitement the rose garden conference provoked – indeed, that Clegg has provoked ever since the first debate – has far less to do with his intellectual prowess or political skill than advertised, and far more to do with his looks.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little counterfactual. Imagine picking up the paper on 13th May and reading the following:

It is in the instincts of all journalists to be cynical. But on that bright May day in the Rose Garden of 10 Downing Street, as David Cameron joked and laughed with his new Liberal Democrat deputy Chris Huhne, it seemed just possible that that most effusive of ideas – a ‘new politics’ – might actually be upon us.

Doesn’t sound right, does it?

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About Rav Casley Gera
Development practitioner, journalist, and all-round good egg. Interested in agriculture, climate change, technology, politics and popular culture.

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