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In the chaos of coalition, the best storyteller will win

James Graham

The only thing we know for sure is that no one knows anything. The one thing we do know is that on the morning of 8 May, as the results fail to declare a winner for a historically unprecedented second time in a row, a lot of people will claim to know something. But they won’t. No one will.

I’m a playwright and a screenwriter, not a journalist. Therefore I don’t know anything either. The one truth I do hold to be self-evident, when it comes to drama, is that narrative is key. Mentor after mentor, from Anthony Minghella to Harvey Weinstein to Josie Rourke, has drilled into me the same principle: story, story, story; plot, plot, plot. It is only by applying a structure to life’s random events, in the way that films, plays and novels do, that anything makes any sense. Meaning reveals itself in the telling. On 8 May, whoever controls the narrative acquires the keys.

In his account of the 2010 general election, Andrew Adonis revealed that Labour were convinced that, in the event of no clear winner, David Cameron would “do a Salmond”. In the 2007 Holyrood elections, Labour lost seats and the SNP gained them, but no party had a majority. Alex Salmond, one of the most gifted performers on the political stage, declared that Labour had suffered a crushing defeat. In fact, Labour ended up with only one seat fewer than the SNP, but the narrative Salmond had spun was so strong, and his delivery so convincing, that the media ran with that line, and he won the day. To put it another way, one of the reasons Salmond became first minister is because he told everyone he was. And they believed him.

In the end, Cameron didn’t do a Salmond”. That’s because he wasn’t the lead narrator of the drama. Centre stage then was Nick Clegg. It was he who declared that the largest party should have the first right to try to govern – and he was so successful in pitching this storyline that “Clegg’s rule” is now, bizarrely, assumed by many to be the constitutional norm. It isn’t. That was just Clegg, deciding something was true, and making it true.

Churchill said history was written by the winners. On 8 May, the future will be written by the most convincing loser. Cameron, assuming the Conservatives are the largest party, will pitch the story that he has won, or at least didn’t lose; Ed Miliband, as leader of the second largest party, might claim that only he can unite the parties across the Commons to pass legislation. Cameron might counter that a government made up of the second, third and fourth parties has no legitimacy; Miliband might remind Cameron that he has now failed to win an election twice, and should resign. Neither of them will be right, and neither of them wrong.

The media will chip in, of course. Last time round, the civil service briefed political editors extensively in the hope that they might keep a confused public informed, but it wasn’t to be. The tabloids knew that Brown was constitutionally obliged to remain in Downing Street until an alternative was presented, but they pushed the “squatter” narrative anyway, and it worked. He walked early. A cynic may assume it is unlikely they’ll be levelling the same at Cameron this week – in fact the opposite is more likely. I can see the Sun’s mockup of Miliband now –a swag bag, a black-and-white top: “Thief!”

Story, story, story; plot, plot, plot. And plots are driven by protagonists. When I wrote the TV drama Coalition, Nick Clegg was my (probably obvious) choice as leading man – his arc, from ideological outsider to compromised insider, seemed to reveal the most about those complex five days and their aftermath.

People died. 19 Labour MPs, from sheer exhaustion at the stress, the fact that every day the government might fall

Often it might be about trying to capture the mood of a particular moment. My polling station play The Vote will be broadcast live from the Donmar Warehouse on election night, featuring 40 actors from Judi Dench to Mark Gatiss, Nina Sosanya and Catherine Tate. The mechanics are those of a farce – one thing goes wrong, it escalates, and chaos ensues. Hopefully the reason the audiences are laughing is that it reflects the confusion we feel, and will continue to feel, in these maddening next few days. Or often it’s about reflecting an emotion, and anxiety. The Angry Brigade, at the Bush Theatre, looks at young political radicals of the 1970s disillusioned by the political establishment. And I’m far from being the only one contributing drama to this national conversation – Jack Thorne gave us Hope at the Royal Court, the Liverpool Everyman is running the U-Decide season, Channel 4 is experimenting with the satire Ballot Monkeys, and there are many more.


It was my play This House that first cemented my geeky love of all things parliamentary, based on the high drama and low farce of the Labour minority government of 1974. The parallels with what’s coming next will be even starker now. And anyone thinking that governing as a minority is favourable to coalition should be warned.

People died – 19 Labour MPs in total, many of them from sheer exhaustion at the stress, the all-night sittings, and the fact that every single day the government might fall. I found their stories often very moving. Joe Harper, one of the whips, died after delaying an operation so he could be around to vote. The gravely ill Alfred “Doc” Broughton, a staunch Labour man all his life, was the one vote missing from the confidence motion that saw the government finally fall after five years. One single vote. His heart stopped beating five days later, and he died a broken man.

Given how public everything is now, we’re unlikely to see all the scenes of the time repeated: fights in the corridors – even once in the chamber, when Michael Heseltine swung the mace – and Labour and Tory fists shedding blood on the green benches; MPs running down Whitehall from the Red Lion pub as the division bell (hooked up in the pub lounge) sounded, giving them exactly eight minutes to drop their pint and leg it to the lobby. Tricks and games more associated with the playground came to the fore. A common wheeze by the whips was to have your party’s MPs leave the palace loudly shouting “Bye!” as they ostensibly headed home, leading your rivals to think they had enough on their side to call a vote. In fact, the exiting MPs would sneak down into the Guy Fawkes cellar and hide for a while until the vote was called – then you sprang your ambush.

One whip phoned a Liberal MP pretending to be a BBC reporter, offering a fake interview to get their opposite number out of the palace. Sick, ill and dying members were brought into New Palace Yard from hospital and nodded through. Dignity is hard to maintain in a hung parliament.

But it’s the ideological battles that face any minority government that are the life or the death of them. And they will be little different from those of 1974: a European referendum splitting the Tories; a failed Scottish referendum causing the Scottish Nationalists to abandon Labour; a country with an identity crisis praying for someone – anyone – to provide a vision.

Lyndon B Johnson’s first rule of politics – that its “practitioners need to be able to count” – will be crucial to the survival of the next government. But that’s for later. In the first seconds, minutes, and hours that follow the exit poll on Thursday night, get ready. It won’t be the best mathematicians who decide our fate – it’ll be the best storytellers.