The Cabinet Office in London’s White­­hall is not generally a hotbed of tourist activity.  The building’s squat, granite façade is screened from public view by a somehow incongruously lush row of elm trees, and, within, it’s a warren of nondescript, government-furnished cubicles typically inhabited by middle-aged men in suits writing memos to one another.  For a few heady days in mid-May, however, this normally tranquil, even bucolic spot seethed with media and civilian frenzy.  There was a permanent crowd of 300 to 400 at the door, flashbulbs lit up the overcast sky, and TV reporters with cameras in tow perched precariously on stepladders for a better view of the action.  It was as if the place had somehow gone to bed in a Constable painting and woken up in one by Bosch.  The cause of all the fuss was the protracted saga of the United Kingdom’s general election, whose ultimate outcome was being debated by “crack teams” (we were told) representing the three main parties, meeting inside.  You could barely read of any other news that week.  It was a real, all-hands-on-deck, headless-chicken disaster for the British press.  The election, the Daily Mail announced on its front page, was an “unholy mess”; the electorate, having defied the Mail’s many clear warnings, was guilty of “a vote for uncertainty and shabby deals,” and before long the United Kingdom “will be plunged into a banana republic-like abyss.”

Perhaps the first sign that something unusual might occur at the British polls came back in September 2007, barely two months into his prime ministership, when Gordon Brown did the unthinkable.  He hired Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising agency that for three decades had been synonymous with iconic Conservative Party propaganda.  For the unelected Brown, it was a defining moment in his attempt to distance himself from the spin of the Tony Blair era and establish himself as a credible, if dowdy, leader: Saatchi’s first task was to produce a poster with the line “Not flash, just Gordon.”

The other particular novelty of this spring’s events was the decision to hold a series of televised debates among the party leaders (long stigmatized as an “American gimmick” by the print media).  The unforeseen result was the elevation of the Liberal Democrats’ “Nick” Clegg into something approaching Winston Churchill status.  A BBC opinion poll taken 24 hours after the first debate showed the telegenic Clegg at 42 percent, significantly ahead of both Brown and his Conservative challenger, David Cameron.  With certain rare exceptions (the Daily Mail again), the media swooned over this hitherto obscure, left-of-center politician with his “bright-eyed and fresh appearance” (the Times) and “debonair style” (the Guardian).  Precisely what Clegg stood for—apart from ever closer ties to the European Union—remained somewhat on the fuzzy side, but it was agreed overnight that he had become the man to beat.  Clegg’s most persuasive pitch, which he repeated throughout the campaign—“At least I’m not them”—tapped into a widespread sense of media boredom and annoyance with Brown, on the one hand, and a matching failure to be convinced by Cameron, on the other.  The day after the first television debate, the Independent had 21 pages of pure politics, the Guardian 16, and the Times 15; so thrilling was Clegg’s ascent that even the latest twist in the saga of Prince Harry’s love life was relegated to the back pages.

Chief among Clegg’s grand claims during the campaign was that he was Britain’s “most honest” political leader.  The Liberal Democrats, he insisted, would “clean up” politics.  Again, the media by and large were happy to take him at his word, declaring Clegg and his party to have been “exonerated” (the Times) in the expense-fiddling scandal that hit Britain’s parliament in 2009.  It took Ed Howker, a journalist at the relatively low-circulation Spectator magazine, to reveal the contents of an internal LibDem document that suggested the party might not be as squeaky clean as first suggested.  “In words that should make Mr Clegg blush,” Howker wrote, “his MPs were told that there were ‘grey areas’ in the parliamentary rules, and ‘lots of scope . . . so be imaginative [with expenses].’”  Even then, the likes of the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Express, the London Evening Standard, and others remained convinced that Clegg was “the new man from the outside, with his new way of doing things . . . No deals, no waffling, no dishonesty,” as Simon Carr coyly put it in the Independent.  There may have been no greater media consensus celebrating the triumph of presentation over substance since the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960.  All but unmentioned in the effusion were Clegg’s views on such issues as immigration, defense, or the economy—let alone the fact that, alone among the party leaders, he cheerfully describes himself as an atheist.  (What can Clegg do, one wonders, during the Anglican prayers that open each day’s parliamentary proceedings—sit back and think of Brussels?)

Another curious feature of the British media coverage of the campaign was what it omitted.  While there were frequent dire warnings of spending cuts to be made following the election, nowhere was the possibility raised that millions of ordinary taxpayers might quite welcome an audit of their nation’s ruinous public expenditures.  The case to be made for the reintroduction of capital punishment, on which opinion polls have consistently shown Parliament to be out of touch with the electorate, went unexplored.  And one scanned the press and news media in vain for any real analysis of Britain’s open-door immigration policy—at least until a 65-year-old grandmother named Gillian Duffy took matters into her own hands and confronted Gordon Brown on one of his rare walkabouts to meet what he calls “the masses.”  Their actual exchange about “eastern Europeans [who] come over here to take our jobs” was relatively innocuous.  What raised the encounter into an international benchmark of on-the-stump humiliation was Brown’s subsequent failure to turn off his lapel microphone—and the glaring discrepancy between his public and private face as his snarled remarks about “that bigoted woman” were broadcast to the world.  That there was a discrepancy was hardly a scandal in itself, but the impression of a man panicked by the mildest kind of contradiction, and looking immediately for someone to blame, was too close a fit to criticisms of his psychology to be anything but devastating.  From that moment, only the endearingly brazenly pro-Labour Daily Mirror even bothered to keep up the fight.  It was now clearly going to be a beauty contest between Clegg and Cameron.  A few days later, as Labour exhaustedly tried to re-energize its campaign, “Lord” Peter Mandelson found his speech interrupted by the comedy sound effect of a nearby car crash, provoked, it later turned out, by the fact that the occupants of one of the vehicles had been shouting abuse at the politicians.  The headline writers had no trouble coming up with the apt metaphorical match for the shambolic state of Labour’s campaign.

That Brown turned up at all for the third and final televised debate showed a kind of heroism.  There was some talk about a “fairer” and “kinder” economy, and a bizarrely rhapsodic tribute to health workers that reached its Hallmark-card climax in the phrase, “We have been in the presence of angels dressed in nurses’ uniforms.”  Surreal as this was, it had nothing on the BBC’s post-debate analysis.  The corporation (funded, it will be recalled, by an annual tax on television-set owners) opted for excess all round, with a huge, pink-lit set, like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 on a galactic budget.  A variety of retired professional sportsmen and dimly familiar soap-opera stars were then paraded in to give their (predominantly pro-Clegg) views.  Among the promised “state-of-the-art” graphics was a chart composed of three glasses filled up with differently colored liquids to show how the leaders were faring.  (On these occasions I’m always struck by the fact that the Liberal Democrats are represented by quite such an evocative shade of yellow.)  Only if Brown, Cameron, and Clegg had agreed to appear in bikinis and answer questions about how they would help humanity if elected Miss World would it have been possible to get a more perfect picture of the modern British political process at work.

Rock bottom, however, was reached by the main television channels only on the long night of Thursday, May 6, the election itself.  On the ITV—or “independent”—news, a haggard presenter named Alaister Stewart enlightened the public at 1:30 a.m. that “The next result is in ten minutes—so time for a drink.”  This was an admirably candid approach for a man who was recently convicted of driving under the influence after ramming his car into a telegraph pole.  But even Stewart appeared to possess almost Reithian gravitas compared to the scene on the BBC, which chose to broadcast coverage of “Britain’s most historic election in 65 years” from the deck of a party boat on the river Thames.  More than 100 guests were invited to help themselves to a floating buffet of smoked salmon and champagne, and periodically to inform the presenter, former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, what they thought of it all.  “I’ve got Joan Collins!” Neil exclaimed at one point.  “I don’t know what’s happening,” Collins said cheerfully, gazing out from under a lopsided wig.  On being told the Conservatives were doing well, the 77-year-old actress cried, “Huzzah for Cameron!” and punched the air with an incongruous Black Power salute.  Perhaps mercifully, power was lost shortly afterward, and Neil was unceremoniously cut off in mid-flow.  The network was left hurriedly to “return to the studio,” where a flustered-looking presenter confirmed that Britain’s flagship news broadcaster was indeed suffering “technical problems.”

Not untypical was the reaction of a viewer who wrote in the Daily Telegraph, “This offering was truly dreadful.  Noisy chattering classes, spin doctors, actresses—all ready to say their piece.  Thank goodness for the power cut.”  Another said, “I have absolutely no interest in hearing the views of drunken celebs.  Typical BBC self-indulgence.”  The corporation refused to disclose how much of its taxpayers’ money it had spent on the event, making the somewhat arcane argument that because it broadcast from the party, its expenditure counted as a “programming cost” rather than “hospitality.”  When I walked down to the pier the following Saturday morning and asked the man in the booking office how much the same boat would cost me to hire, he replied affably, “About twenty grand [$30,000] for the night,” and speculated that catering costs for 100 people would add “about as much again.”

Meanwhile, much of the print media was engaged in its familiar pincer movement to remind us that it is they, and not the electorate, who are the real opinion-formers in these matters.  Having first built up Clegg with ludicrous hyperbole and an occasional whiff of self-righteousness, the Times and the Guardian respectively now referred to him as a “bubble posing as a politician of substance” and a “vast disappointment.”  The Times, admittedly, was anxious, speaking of the “urgent need” to form a government in the interests of stability, but the Conservative-leaning Telegraph refused to flap, declaring the whole occasion “a great opportunity” for democracy.  The inimitable Sun went so far as to forgo its traditional full-page photograph of a topless woman in order to bring us a “Whitehall Property Scandal Special” in which it lamented, at some length, the continuing presence in No. 10 Downing Street of a “59-year-old man named Gordon Brown who refuses to leave his public-funded housing.”

When I fly back to the United States from Britain and first turn on the television, I’m normally conscious of having somehow passed through the looking glass from a sane world into a mad one.  This time around, I felt the opposite.  After the events of May, it was almost a pleasure to sit through the impeccably somber, humor-free mainstream network news, with its dire litany of catastrophic economic forecasts, looming environmental disasters, and end-of-the-world health scares.  Home at last.