WHEN I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine decided to take a tilt at student politics. I did my law degree during the heyday of Labour’s power in Westminster and Holyrood – and student politics in those days were hoaching with mini-Mandelsons who had bold visions of their futures as party apparatchiks and parliamentarians.

The most focused of these baby Blairites had already developed unnerving skills for projecting superficial charm and greasing a room. You could easily have mistaken these zealous youngsters for Mormon missionaries, with their sensible haircuts, red rosettes and preppy style. They left me with an abiding suspicion of 20-year-olds who embrace “business-casual”.

This generation of ambitious young things came late to the party – too late. What looked like a sound career-bet in 2006 became a dead end just a few years later – as the Labour Party was stripped of office first in Holyrood, then in Westminster. I imagine there are a few shellshocked Toryboys sitting in their Union Jack underpants this weekend, contemplating their party’s standing in the opinion polls in stunned disbelief, obliged to reconsider their career options in a world where England’s “natural party of government” is polling at 14%.

In those days, the Nats were nowhere in Edinburgh. The political atmosphere was still mainly orientated towards UK politics. You rarely heard from MSPs, but the politics society regularly played host to a string of Jurassic era Thatcherite ministers, backbenchers with outsize public profiles (and reliably weird views), and the odd Labour minister for balance, who usually spent considerable time trying to justify their invasion of Iraq. George Galloway, I remember, told us that America would attack Iran within weeks. (Spoilers: they didn’t.) In the mid-2000s, the power struggles in the student union largely played out between the New Labour mob and the eco-warriors and greenies – but there was also a major contingent of big-haired hooray Henries and Sloane rangers with immaculate private educations and remarkably reactionary views. The current political editor of The Sun was one of their number.

READ MORE: How much further are the Tories prepared to go to stay in government?

As we all know, a good slogan is a politician’s friend, even when you’re grubbing for two and shoogly votes in the student union. My pal decided to fly in the face of the snappy brand management favoured by the New Labour kids and the comedy fascism of the “edgy” right-wingers. He opted instead for the catchphrase “A Boring Candidate For A Boring Job,”

accompanied by a Baader-Meinhof style mugshot which made him look like a serial killer obliged to participate in a police line-up.

Optics, it seems, mattered even to undergrads back then – and this nifty appeal didn’t win him the election. But if you listen to great swathes of the British commentariat this week, you’d think he was a political genius before his time. Boring is back.

There’s a particular kind of squishy centrist whose politics seem to consist of the absence of politics. These are the kind of folk who say things like “I wish politics were boring again” – as if this is some kind of profound diagnosis of the state of things. Reflecting on the latest scandal engulfing the Tory party, they’re given to tweeting thoughts like “it almost makes you miss Theresa May” – content to overlook all the former PM’s cruelties and incompetencies because she was marginally less rickety, less flagrantly dishonest than Liz Truss and Boris Johnson.

These are also the folk who were only too happy to give Ruth Davidson a free pass on Tory policy, because she came off as a jaunty wisecracker. These “sensible centrists” – which can be found scattered across all the main UK parties and the political commentariat – had quiet raptures when Truss was obliged to summon in Jeremy Hunt in from his obscurity on the backbenches to shore up the Government’s collapsing economic position. “Finally, an adult in the room,” they said, enthusiastically laundering the reputation of a politician whose credentials as a great statesman are seriously open to question.

The National: Jeremy Hunt's stint as health secretary provoked the ire of many medical professionalsJeremy Hunt's stint as health secretary provoked the ire of many medical professionals

Hunt spent much of his Cabinet career dealing with the English health brief for David Cameron, to considerable controversy and disquiet amongst medical professionals. You’d think the appointment of an austerity throwback would prompt a more nuanced political response from the self-appointed Sensibles. It is one thing to heave a sigh relief at the defenestration first of Kwarteng, then Truss. But don’t you think it might be a bit previous to hail the announcement that energy bills will be unfrozen after six months, and that austerity is back of the agenda, as an example of “common sense” politics? Adults are surely capable of disagreeing on questions as fundamental as where the costs of this government’s economic policies should fall.

My main problem with these centrist rubes is that they value style entirely over substance, as if being able to tie a tie, don a suit and complete a full sentence without dribbling, zoning out, or accidentally starting a war with the French constituted political adulthood and respectable politics. This kind of sentiment goes way beyond the reasonable demand for economic security, an end to daily crises, and government policy which doesn’t blow apart your family budget by adding several zeroes onto your annual mortgage liability.

THIS weekend, the Conservative Party is in flux, caught between two futures. When Boris Johnson was forced out of Downing Street four months ago, Labour held a six-point lead over the Conservatives. Come October, they’re now 25 points ahead. Is this lead recoverable, or has the Truss experiment doomed the Tories at the next General Election? It’s clear some MPs have given up hope – but those with some fight still in them offer two different, incompatible visions for clawing back public support. Both are premised on the idea that, all things being equal – Keir Starmer is a loser.

The first scheme is the madder of the two. As I type, the BBC and Sky News are broadcasting live footage of Boris Johnson’s flight touching down from his termtime holiday in the Dominican Republic. He was reportedly booed by fellow passengers as he got onto the plane. Like all holidaymakers making their way home from a boozy jaunt to the Caribbean, Johnson decided to travel in the comfort of a lounge suit. When you’re dressing for the cameras in this way, it’s reasonable to assume you’re on manoeuvres and alive to the possibility your commute back to work might find its way into the media.

Johnson’s tribunes in the Tory party are trying to coax their colleagues back down the time tunnel to the future. They believe #BringBackBoris is the only solution to the party’s woes. You imagine “give me a second chance, darling” is a speech Johnson has given many times before – but if Tory MPs honestly believe a second Johnson administration will be frank, unchaotic, and coherent – then they’ll believe anything. The best guide to future behaviour is past behaviour, after all. Even more fundamentally, the promise of a second Johnson premiership is simply incompatible with the idea of sobriety and “grown up politics.” Johnson can’t out-adult Starmer – and wouldn’t even try.

The alternative is to anoint Rishi Sunak, in the hopes he wins the bore-off with the Labour leader. You can understand the thinking here. Sir Keir has made his political career by not being other people. First, he wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn. Then he wasn’t Boris Johnson. He enjoyed not being Liz Truss. He might have the opportunity not to be Boris Johnson again. But if you try to contemplate the promise of a Starmer government on its own terms, it is curiously difficult to get a handle on the pitch.

David Cameron once snarked across the floor of the House of Commons that Corbyn should “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.” Starmer has clearly taken this admonition to heart – and has avoided being monstered by the tabloid media for hating queen, king, or country as a result.

But it’s difficult to identify anything the Labour leader has done which has contributed positively towards their polling lead. His policy so far has been intensely reactive, powered by the chain-reaction of scandals, errors and disgraces the UK Government has inflicted on itself. Amid the recent political carnage, it is easy to forget the Tories have a working majority in the Commons of 78 seats. In theory, anyway. If the sell is Mr Sensible, Mr Adult, Mr Responsible – then how do you handle an opponent who doesn’t double deal like Johnson or double down on wrecker economics like Truss? How does Mr Boring beat Mr Boring?