The phone rings. In the strange working life of a columnist this can be the most exciting event of the day. Where will the call lead, to a meeting with a cabinet minister, a slot on the Today programme or, more likely in my case, a reminder of an appointment at the dentists? This time it is a friend of mine asking whether one of his students on a post-graduate journalism course can shadow me for a few days. “There is nothing to shadow,” I reply without hesitation. The columnist’s vocation is strangely shapeless. Having deterred a keen graduate from watching me with my laptop for a week I head to Portcullis House, the home for most MPs and my favourite location to write columns. I have no idea of a theme for today’s column, but in the queue for coffee, a centrist Tory MP tells me approvingly of progressive policies that arise from the involvement of the Liberal Democrats. He hopes for a permanent arrangement between the two parties. Minutes later I bump into a former adviser of Gordon Brown’s who points out that the Lib Dems are close to reaching their main tax objective, excluding low earners from tax. The Independent’s comment editor phones to discuss today’s column. I suggest one arguing that the influence of the Liberal Democrats on the coalition is increasing, as if this idea had been brewing for days rather than minutes. She agrees and I have survived the only hazard of column-writing: coming up with fresh ideas two or three times a week. This will be the first time I have been positive about the Liberal Democrats for months.
Awake to several tweets and emails from readers insisting I am far too generous to the Liberal Democrats. One calls me an apologist for David Cameron, a new role for me. Columnists are sensitive to reaction wherever it comes and in whatever form. Criticism makes them miserable and praise gives them an irrational buzz – even positive comments from anonymous bloggers who could be writing from a lunatic asylum. From my experience, most journalists could never be politicians. They could not take the media flak.
I am presenting the Week in Westminster where we are short of a fourth item. Sometimes three discussions are enough. This week our themes are all related to ‘tax and spend’. There is a limit to the joys of listening to debates about tax. My editor persuades the former Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, to appear. She is talking about when Votes of Confidence might be held in fixed term parliaments. This is quite a technical issue, but Boothroyd could make a talk on the fiscal deficit strategy of Argentina sound fun. At the end I ask her if she follows the current Speaker assiduously. She laughs nervously. On her way out, my editor tells Boothroyd she can listen to the programme or download it through the BBC iPlayer. Boothroyd looks at her with bewildered assertiveness and declares: “My dear, I have only learnt how to email recently."
This is the era for formidable older politicians. Whenever I switch on the TV or radio I see or hear Shirley Williams, as charmingly articulate as when she was a minister in the 1970s and a rising star of the Labour Party. Her arguments against the coalition’s NHS reforms are more potent because they are forensically applied. She has read the bill with its mountain of proposals. She comes from a generation of politicians where policy detail was intensely scrutinised in cabinet and beyond. This is not always the case today.
I head for the Progressive Governance conference at Westminster to interview Ed Miliband. The yearly gathering attracts so-called 'progressives' from around Europe, so not one of Miliband’s toughest gigs. He is having a bit of a rough time in the media and yet is calm and focused. Although he is young, he has been exposed to the heat of politics for more than a decade, working for Gordon Brown. Such an experience is the equivalent of doing National Service based on a mountain in Wales for half a century. It is too early to decide whether Miliband will be a success but he has passed some early tests, of which calmness in the face of media onslaughts is one. I ask him why he is so confident there is a progressive majority in Britain. Like Boothroyd in response to my question about John Bercow, he laughs nervously.
Steve Richards is chief political commentator for The Independent. His next live Politics Show is at Kings Place, London, on 6 June.