Books: The Meaning of Recognition — General Election Sequence, 2001 |
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General Election Sequence, 2001

1. The New Labour Machiavelli

‘Yes,’ said Peter Mandelson, ‘but you’re a wizened old media hack.’ He said that to me, and I was flattered out of my wits. The trick of painless teasing is the height of charm, and Mandelson has so much charm that he pays the inevitable penalty: he makes an enemy of anybody from whom he withholds it. For those on whom he confers it, however, only one inference is possible: here is a fine mind. The question of what the fine mind is up to suddenly becomes subsidiary. It was on Tuesday that he called me a grizzled old media hack, and even though our close friendship was scarcely into its fifteenth minute, I had already decided that I had met the political genius I was waiting for — the one who could see that I, deep down, was a political genius too. Since, in all practical matters, I had previously been regarded as a joke figure even by my local residents’ association, this was a late but welcome endorsement of my hidden qualities. But before I draw further conclusions about this historic one-on-one confrontation across Mandelson’s kitchen table in Hartlepool, let us go back to the long-gone day — more than a week ago now — when Tony Blair announced a General Election clearly fated to confirm him in the post which he could well hold until the next arrival of the Messiah, who will almost certainly be wearing a Labour rosette.

As you may remember if you are the sort of person who relishes the shower scene in Psycho, the Prime Minister launched his campaign at St Olave’s school in South London. Blair is a man who has a special voice for everything. At the funeral of the Princess of Wales he had a special voice for reading the Bible, as if the measure of its prose needed assistance from himself, with extra pauses, swoops and emphases to eke out its poverty of cadence. At St Olave’s he had a special voice for speaking to children, as if children were a category of human being limited by delayed comprehension. The girl who pulled the sweater over her head was not a political dissident: she was a theatre critic. Two elections from now she might well vote for him, but she will never go to see him playing Hamlet, because she already knows that he will take his doublet off in the opening scene, thus to prove, in his shirtsleeves, that he is a pretty straight sort of Prince. Even the friendliest newspapers thought that Blair’s performance at St Olave’s reeked of stage management. Really this should have been old news. The Labour party has been controlling its leader’s image for years: it’s the Mandelson emphasis, as interpreted in recent times by Alastair Campbell. What made it news in the opening hours of the campaign was a creeping sense that the puppeteers were getting their wires crossed.

The creeping sense broke into a gallop a couple of days later, when a staged event in a Warwickshire tea room went so smoothly as to defy belief. Fated to go down in the annals of salesmanship as Blair’s Spontaneous Encounter with ‘the ordinary couple in Leamington Spa’, the event featured such ecstasies of spontaneity from Blair, and such paroxysms of ordinariness from the ordinary couple, that any cat in the area would have died laughing. But there were no cats in the area. They had all had their accreditation withdrawn, lest they be caught on camera, rolling around with their paws up in the throes of hilarious death.

* * *

Unlike the Millennium Dome, which achieved incredibility through everything going wrong, the Leamington Spa Spontaneous Encounter Experience achieved incredibility through everything going right. The ordinary couple didn’t turn up drunk and Blair didn’t deliver the script meant to inspire two rehabilitated burglars in Stevenage the following week. But nothing was accomplished except a hefty reinforcement to the growing impression that, for Blair’s management team, efficiency came first, even if reality had to be adjusted to suit the message. The downside to such an attitude is that the manipulation becomes another message. Blair’s protean multiplicity of special voices lends weight to the view that this all-pervading bogusness comes from the top down. When Rory Bremner was thrown off the Labour Battle Bus, it occurred to me that Blair had realized Bremner was really in politics, and had realized it as a consequence of Bremner’s having realized that Blair was really in show business.

By Friday the media had concluded that Blair’s politics of the fixed smile had lost Labour the first week. The polls didn’t shift, but the perception did. Hague and Kennedy had mixed it with the hecklers. Blair’s minders had allowed him to face nothing more dangerous than a baby. Blair didn’t stop smiling even when he kissed it. The baby could have been scarred for life with the imprint of ivory: the shadow of your smile. ‘He’ll look back on it in years to come,’ said the baby’s on-message mother. Over the weekend, the media consensus was that Millbank’s management of their man was sclerotic in its finesse. The machine Peter Mandelson had helped to create was in a shallow dive on automatic pilot. Already there were whispers that the man who built it might be the only man who knew how to fix it.

On Monday, Mandelson seemed to agree. He published an article in this paper crying up New Labour’s new emphasis on ‘articulating core values and beliefs’, but he left the way open for his readers to infer that the old emphasis on presentation was still in existence, and perhaps counter-productive. Anyone who recalled that Mandelson himself was largely responsible for the old emphasis might have found this pretty steep, but what mattered was how they might read it at Millbank, where Labour’s campaign was being masterminded by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.

There were visions of the New Machiavelli driving a wedge between Blair and Brown, as once the old Machiavelli might have warned his Prince against a factotum grown too mighty. At King’s Cross I caught the train to Hartlepool. Or, rather, I caught the first of three trains to Hartlepool. The first train accumulated only twenty minutes of delay on the way to York, and I’m bound to say that under New Labour the quality of public address system announcements has improved out of sight, although unfortunately not out of earshot. The best announcement was when the train was standing just outside Doncaster. ‘We apologize for the slight delay outside Doncaster Station. This is because the driver is on the tracks talking to the signalman about the new speed restrictions. As soon as ...’

Ready to vote for Mussolini, I caught the train to Middlesbrough that would qualify me for the train to Hartlepool, but after Middlesbrough my mood changed along with the look of the country. At the Ann Summers sex shop in Middlesbrough’s glossy main drag the sales assistants had told me that the whole area had come up a long way in the last five years, and now I could see they were right. Between Billington and Seaton Carew the industries filled the horizon. There were still fields of allotments in among the villages, but the housing looked either refurbished or spanking new, and Hartlepool sparkled. The new Marina looked like a chunk of San Francisco’s glass and pipe waterfront on a darker sea, or Sydney’s Darling Harbour under a darker sky. The franchises were stacked sideways one after the other like an updated Monopoly board. Stand-alone edifices had been helicoptered in from global America: Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Warner multiplex. There were whole streets of discos with percussive names like Passion and Pow!. Hypermarkets hugely occupied the spaces left by the pit-prop yards that died with the pits.

One of the penalties a town pays for modern-day modernization is that it joins a homogenized world, but Hartlepool has kept a lot of its distinguished old buildings and buffed them up: the refurbs look even snazzier than the new stuff, and the general effect is of a civilized prosperity. Everyone you meet says that five years ago things were far otherwise, and the history books make that easy to believe. In the Depression, unemployment in the area ran at a steady 40 per cent. In May 1941, Luftflotte 3 was overhead for three nights at a time, clobbering the docks. But the really devastating raid was ordered in by Mrs Thatcher, whose government finally laid the old industries waste. It could be said that she made regeneration possible, in the same way that an Australian bushfire benefits a forest. She certainly handed New Labour the opportunity to prove itself. It undoubtedly has. Where graving docks and the smokestack industries once cranked out the wherewithal for owners and workers to lead unequal lives, now the new industries are moving in to chase the government aid, benefit from the cheap rents and the freed-up workforce, and gush the cash-flow for a fair civic order. After more than half a day on the trains I bluffed my way into the students’ café in the College of Further Education and heard a lot about the upcoming Summerhill complex, a council project to provide a recreational facility that will have everything: rock-climbing, BMX tracks, waterslides, something for everyone. Ann Summers didn’t get a mention but Peter Mandelson did. It wasn’t a Labour-controlled council any more, but it had been until last year, during the rebuilding period, and Mandelson was still what he had always been, a terrific constituency MP. When I asked what they thought of his leading the high life in London, they said that’s the way it had to be. ‘He’s here for the surgeries.’

Next morning I turned up at his house in Sutton Avenue, where the prices run to about 50 or 60 thou. In London, as Mandelson learned too well, it costs ten times as much to live this neatly. The air of snug safety is somewhat offset by his police escort, but that’s got nothing to do with Hartlepool, or even with the prospect of an incoming egg of the calibre that took out John Prescott. Northern Ireland will follow Mandelson for a long time. The only car he’s allowed to ride in weighs three and a half tons more than it looks. Paranoia would be understandable, but he answered his own door and emanated a convincing air of cool. Fine drawn in slacks and loose woolly, he moved to match his easy murmur. On his own immediate confession, or insistence, it’s only the press that makes him jumpy. Everything else — including, by implication, a rocket grenade with an Irish accent through his front window — is part of the game, but the press is something wicked. He recited from bitter memory a list of commentators who were on his case. Ten years ago, he said, it had been different, but by now the press had injected ‘quantities of cynicism into the political bloodstream’.

Part of the press myself, if only on a part-time basis, I stuck up for our side by pointing out that using the press had been the basis of the presentational politics which he himself had done a lot to invent, and that the policy had reached its questionable apotheosis with Blair’s Pied Piper routine at St Olave’s. It was at this early point that he called me a wizened old media hack. We were in his kitchen, the coffee was still brewing, and already he had me reeling at how unguarded he could be. In conversation, the man determined not to bore himself is the one least likely to bore anybody else. Mandelson treats any topic to his own high standards of exposition and will continue talking unless interrupted. On the other hand, he listens carefully to the interruption and takes off again from what you said, instead of merely continuing with what he was saying before. When pressed in rapid exchange, he can cover any given topic in three or four nuanced sentences, any one of which could be used to murder him without even being misquoted.

He talks as if sound-bite land didn’t exist, as if a wizened old media hack would never jot down a phrase and use it to frame him. If flattery were his intention, it would be an immensely flattering technique. But I think it’s just him. He simply wasn’t born for the game whose harsh rules he has done so much to make binding. On only two topics did he press the on-message replay button: Blair and Millbank. To take them in reverse, Millbank was wonderful, doing a great job, practically infallible. Blair had ‘intelligence, integrity, selflessness’ and many other qualities in common with Solomon, Einstein and Albert Schweitzer. But even here — in fact especially here — the beamed dogma suddenly expanded into genuine eloquence. Spotting that the tendency of my own argument was to suggest that Blair had been managed into existence by his back-up team, Mandelson took several minutes to explain that the opposite was true. New Labour’s new direction, new deal and new society: it was all Blair’s idea. Blair was a unique combination of vision and practicality. The job of his managers had been to hold the wall while he got on with it. I interrupted the flow to contend that they had also managed the media in order to project him. ‘Protect him?’ Mandelson asked, misinterpreting my mumble. ‘No,’ I said, ‘project.’ Mandelson said that for better or worse, ‘we live in a personality-driven media age’.

Clearly, in his own case, he thinks it is for the worse. One day it might be known as the Mandelson Paradox: he accepted and mastered, on behalf of his party and the two men who led it to transformation — Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair — a set of atmospheric conditions in which he himself could hardly breathe. To pursue the cause in which he believes, he rated reality above his own tastes. There is a sacrificial element, which in his more vulnerable moments he might be tempted to admire in a mirror: that face out of a Renaissance painting could easily take on the pained resignation of St Sebastian shot full of arrows. Those of us whose bloodstreams have been tainted by cynicism might say he asked for it. There is certainly at least one man-trap question that not even he will find it easy to talk his way out of, even if his memoirs run to the full two volumes. If Blair is so great, and you did nothing wrong, why did he accept your resignation? Surely the truth is that he was done in by the silent borrowing, and not the supposed leg-up for the Hinduja Brothers. When it came to the crunch, Mandelson was in the position of the small boy who gets away with burning down the school and then gets busted for riding his bicycle on the footpath. But here again, I think, the weakness comes from the strength. For a man like him, elegant conviviality and conversational brilliance amount to a talent which is death to hide. He could no more be expected to lead the simple life of Arthur Scargill than Metternich could have been expected to live like a peasant. The civilized dinner table was not his aspiration: he felt it to be his natural entitlement. But in the modern, media-sensitive politics of the Mandelson age, what seems natural to you is the very thing you have to examine in advance for its possible effects. It seemed natural to John Prescott that an egg-thrower should be thumped in the face.

What Mandelson lost will be seen only in the long run. What Blair lost in the short run was dramatically on view that same afternoon, when Mandelson visited High Tunstall School. It’s an ordinary school that anyone local can send their children to, but even by the exalted standards of St Olave’s it looks like Arcadia. The children had organized themselves into a miniature House of Commons, complete with canopy for the Speaker, played by National Best Speaker Stuart Bevell (13) who can do a stunning impersonation of Betty Boothroyd. The Prime Minister had a bother-boy haircut but turned in a notably more fleet-footed Question Time performance than his model, and the Leader of the Opposition, son of a doctor from the subcontinent, had Hague’s every needling technique well covered. What was astonishing, however, was the high standard of argument. Mandelson listened in unfeigned delight, and when he rose to commend them he paid the participants the compliment of being delightful on his own account. ‘Do you feel you were unpleasant and aggressive enough?’

But the tease play was only the start. He gave them a run-down on what the House of Commons is like to be in, and how the close confinement encourages verbal aggression. ‘It’s not that they’re nasty people. But you forget yourself, and before you know where you are you’re shouting with the rest of them.’ He gave the kids everything he had, and didn’t patronize them for a second. The son of a prominent local Tory was given exceptional respect for his views. If Millbank had filmed the whole event, they could have had a PPB for the future: Labour education policies for the primary schools have worked, they could say, and the secondary schools are next. But whether Mandelson could have done all that with the camera on him is another question. Essentially it was a private performance.

Onward to a regeneration committee meeting at the Council chambers, where a Newsnight team was on hand. Immediately Mandelson tightened up. By arrangement, Newsnight filmed him only in the corridors and for the first few minutes of the meeting. When they backed out of the door he was himself again. Once again he was impressive, and this time for doing more listening than talking. As chairman of the cross-party committtee he got the best out of everybody. For a gifted talker there is always a temptation to crush the less eloquent by summarizing their long arguments with a single phrase, but Mandelson did not succumb. What he said was either usefully supplementary or else neatly summarized the points of contention. Though he would probably rather die than say so, a Labour-dominated meeting would have been less interesting. He told me afterwards what a joy it was to be able to draw on the experience of the Lib Dem old hand: ‘good, solid, civic stock’.

For Mandelson, ‘civic’ is a big word. His fondness for the idea is one of the things that make him remarkable, because those who help to paint and frame the big picture are often impatient with local detail. In the eye of history, Mandelson will be seen to have helped alter the course of British politics from one millennium to the next, but the view of his influence will be impoverished if it does not include his respect for what should not alter: the unglamorous but necessary work in the constituency, the long meetings where everyone gets a say, the depressing moment when you recommend a skateboard ramp for the local layabout youths and find out the hard way that the vicar doesn’t know what a skateboard is. I saw it happen, and wondered if it ever happened to Machiavelli. But Mandelson managed the moment well, as he can manage everything except the fundamental contradiction of his life. He is a master artist of politics, but politics is not an art. Machiavelli, who thought it was, found out it wasn’t when the very people he had sought to advise put him to the rack. That evening Mandelson went out canvassing. I thought he was quite good at that too, but I suppose they all are, or they would never get elected. I left him there, and thus missed the episode when he was monstered by Jeremy Vine in the Newsnight minivan.

2. Incredible Shrinking Tories

In any democracy, there is never a more fascinating election than when only one party can win no matter how repellent its campaign. The fascination comes from the unblinkable fact that the future of the opposition is on the line. In 1983 I followed Michael Foot’s campaign on its way to catastrophe. Clinging with the rest of the Keystone Kops to the running-board of his Model T as it swerved zanily between the trolley cars, I had only one thing on my mind: this is an accident that had to happen. Out of the wreckage, they might build something. Today the same goes double for the Tories. At least the crash of Foot’s doomed vehicle left his party divided merely in two, even as the Kops took parabolic flight in all directions to wind up demolishing pie-stalls or disappearing into the windows of shops selling lingerie. But after this election the Tories might be left with hardly any party at all.

On Tuesday the spectre the Tories are facing was in plain sight at Clapham Junction station, in the constituency of Battersea. Like Gaul in the time of Julius Caesar (Conservative), the borough of Wandsworth is divided into three parts: Putney, Tooting and Battersea. Wandsworth is a Tory fiefdom, and if a fiefdom can have a flagship, Battersea is it. Unfortunately for the local Tory stalwarts, in 1997 it was lost to Labour by 5,300 votes. Not a hell of a lot, but except in the conditions of the then-prevailing apocalypse it would never have happened. On the questionable assumption that an apocalypse can’t happen twice, a plumply pretty and terribly nice woman called Lucy Shersby has been deputed to get the votes back. If a Nigella-sweet voice and a cuddly deportment could do it, she would do it, even with the assistance of her local young Tory troops. Their amiably clueless arrangements reminded me vividly of the Labourite dogsbodies on the Foot campaign trail who couldn’t assemble water, jug and glass into the same position before the visiting orator was on the point of expiring from thirst.

The Battersea junior task force had, however, managed to organize a cardboard sign: INCOME TAX UP TO 50P ADMITS BROWN. This powerful device was held up to face the prosperous crowds of homecoming evening commuters as they poured down the Shopstop chute from the station to the street. The young men in chinos, poplin summer jackets and Timberland footwear had stepped out of a Ralph Lauren advertisement, the slit-skirted young women out of a re-run of This Life. There was the usual London admixture of delinquents, fast-food mutants and deadbeats of all ages, but on the whole you would have said that this was the middle class at the throbbing peak of its reproductive cycle. Forty years ago — thirty, twenty, even ten — I would have been able to tell how they voted just by the way they dressed: Conservative. But now you can’t tell, and that’s the Tory nightmare.

The young Tory helpfuls seemed not to realize it was a nightmare, which meant that here was the nightmare compounded. They thrust leaflets into the well-groomed hands of the hurrying horde and showed no signs of surprise when the leaflets were returned to them as if tainted with botulism. But Lucy was due to receive a visitor, and he realized it. Unfolding from a needlessly small car came the radiant presence of Michael Portillo. Whether he was here to share Lucy’s evident belief that his blessing might swing the vote, or whether he was here in the same spirit of posthumous defiance that sent El Cid (Loyalist Royalist) riding out dead in the saddle to meet the enemy, was not apparent from his demeanour. Nothing was apparent from that except gentle manners. A camera can easily make his features look brutal, but seen in real air they look sensitive even in their chunkiness, rather in the way that Michelangelo (Gay Rights) turned Brutus (Republican Revolutionary) into a pugilist with a taste for Stoic philosophy. Unlike Tony Blair’s smile, which would remain fixed even if perforated by the bullets of a firing squad, Portillo’s smile comes and goes; but when it is there, it is the smile of a man who has known indecision and suffering, and has overcome both while forgetting neither.

As the commuters continued surging towards us like Labour MPs into the division lobby, Portillo got going with a smoothly practised double-handed meet-and-greet routine, his eyes reassuringly suggesting that although there might possibly have been some fleeting reason for voting Labour last time, normal service had now been resumed. Portillo can get a lot into his eyes, including everything happening around him. He spotted me edging up and gave me the tolerant smile for media pests. I pointed to the sign about Brown’s alleged admission. ‘Did he admit it?’ Portillo’s answer was already tried and tested, but he threw in a conspiratorial twinkle. ‘Well, he’s not denied it.’ Instant buddies: that knack of bringing you in on a secret is one of the most valuable a politician can have. Con men, of course, have it too: but they have nothing else. Portillo’s geniality is real.

Attracted by the splash and swirl of a big fish, a television news crew showed up. Lucy’s team got tremendously excited, and, being so well bred, tremendously shy. One of them — a tall, gorgeous young man with a circa 1964 James Fox haircut and a closely tailored Heseltine-style blue pin-stripe suit, his whole appearance out of a mould you would have thought was long since lying in pieces somewhere in a Surrey lane — was audibly puzzled as to the news crew’s provenance. ‘Is it the Beer Beer Sear?’ It was ITN. Imagine the equivalent young New Labour operative not knowing.

Flushed with their media success, Lucy’s Gamma Force hoplites ushered their guest into a car bound for what they assured him was an even hotter spot, Battersea Park station. Since nobody else had thought of it, Portillo kindly suggested to the troops that I be guided by one of them towards the rendezvous. The terribly nice young man who got the job managed to get thoroughly lost, and we saw a great deal of the district before we reached the target zone, where I thought the show was all over. But apparently it had never happened. Though Portillo, Lucy and her praetorians were all present, there were no commuters in sight. I had memories of Michael Foot being led by sweating local worthies into a Peterborough roller-skating rink populated by a mass meeting of twenty-six people, two of them holding balloons.

Portillo never even snarled. He told me that there was a more serious gig coming up on the forecourt of a local service station: an interview with ITN about the National Insurance thing. Perhaps mischievously, he left it to the Battersea bunch to get me there. My two young guides, a male and female who were clearly meant for each other, pooled their knowledge of the area and took me off on a circumnavigation of the constituency that eventually got us to the destination, which was just around the corner from the departure point. Half an hour having elapsed, Portillo had already wrapped up the interview. With his apparently infallible courtesy he congratulated the Battersea Young Tory Commandos as if the future of the party lay in their hands: a daunting prospect. He might have thought he owed me one for putting me at their mercy, because he offered me a trip back to Smith Square, and yes, if I really thought it might be useful I could grill him when we got there. Shortly he would have to disappear into the depths of Central Office for a strategy meeting, but meanwhile how could he help? With just such grace and style, Thomas More (Christian Conservative) once bade the executioner to do his work well, but Thomas More knew that he was going to a better life. Portillo has less reason to believe that bliss is imminent, so his faith in humanity must be deep indeed.

As we settled into the leather chairs, he was already fielding my first question, and what other first question could there be? Yes, he admitted, in 1997 Labour ate into what should have been the natural Tory vote. After eighteen years the crucial centre of the electorate was fed up, and besides, Labour had done the necessary job of reforming itself in order to take over the Conservatives’ economic views. ‘In those terms it was an epic political victory for us.’ Since Portillo himself lost his seat in 1997 and must have felt the deprivation keenly, this was a large gesture of respect. It was also a clever way of glossing the disaster to make it sound like a triumph. As to that, there is some truth to it, although it should be remembered that Labour was not reformed by Mrs Thatcher’s example, but by the long influence of its own social democrats.

But Portillo was only bantering. He got down to cases when he admitted, if only by implication, that there was no automatically certain base in the landed and business interests to which the Conservatives could return. Everything would depend on an inclusive view of society that would compete with Labour by offering a real answer to the problems they would never solve by goal-setting management from the top down. Only ‘the devolution of power and authority’ could give the schools and the hospitals what they were crying out for: motivation. Pay was important, but motivation was everything. And if every critical issue in every institution had to go all the way up to state level and back down again before it could be dealt with, no amount of tax money would meet the case, because the people in charge of other people’s destinies would never take effective responsibility if they did not feel that they were in charge of their own. Portillo expounded these arguments with passion, but even more striking was his lucidity. It might not seem much to say that he is the best mind on the Tory front bench, when he, Hague and Ann Widdecombe possess the only three faces most of us can put a name to. But even if Kenneth Clarke and Chris Patten were not in purdah or exile, Portillo would still count as a political intellect on a scale above tactics and even above strategy: a sectional interest can be given up for a national plan only on the basis of an historic view.

The stipulated few minutes had turned into many more and history was what we were now talking about. Flatteringly he asked for an addition to his reading list, and I suggested Alan Moorehead’s Gallipoli, a book that brings out how right Churchill was about the Dardanelles, and how completely the War Council — a Millennium Dome committee avant la lettre — converted a vision for shortening the war into a sure-fire formula for lengthening it. Portillo countered by recommending John Lukacs’s Five Days in London, in which it is stated that Chamberlain had the casting vote in the matter of a possible capitulation to Hitler in 1940, and sided with Churchill for two reasons — because Chamberlain had learned that Hitler was a bad man, and because Churchill had treated Chamberlain with decency after his ejection from power. So the time to say goodbye was the time to trail my coat. ‘Will you and Hague have to rebuild the party together after the defeat?’ The smile went off like a light: no irony, no complicity. ‘We contemplate nothing except victory.’

He knows better than that, but he said the right thing, which is the political thing. Out there being led by her eager young troops in the wrong direction around Battersea, Lucy Shersby might drop in her tracks if Portillo spoke the truth. And anyway, the truth is that you never know. It’s an election for the House of Commons, not the Politburo, and the fact that not even the most predictable outcome is ever a sure thing is the best reason for voting. And even if you had the power of Nostradamus (Liberal Democrat) to foresee the event, your vote could still affect the aftermath. If the Conservatives lose in a big enough way, Hague will probably get the push, and there is nobody except Portillo to take his place. But supposing that the Lib Dems do not expand into the vacuum, and the Tories do well enough for Hague to keep his credibility, it would not necessarily be a bad thing for Portillo, and could be good for the country.

Hague is a born fighter who will do a better job than Portillo of hazing Blair at the dispatch box for the next Parliament, and Portillo as Shadow Chancellor will have the opportunity to work on the plans that could rebuild the party in the only way it can be rebuilt: by proposing, in detail and without appeal to atavistic prejudice, an inclusive yet demonstrably workable order of social justice, thus to compete in the centre for voters who are no longer either the prisoners of their background or its privileged darlings. And to those who proclaim that there is nothing interesting about a centralized politics in which two similar parties are divided only by their proposed methods of achieving the same ends, there is a sharp answer. Those are the only politics worthy of the name, and we are very lucky to live in an epoch where they prevail.

Just how lucky was revealed to me all over again next day in Sloane Square, where I met one of Portillo’s challengers for the Kensington and Chelsea constituency. If not the most formidable of his opponents, Julia Stephenson of the Green party is certainly the most unmanningly pretty. In a party whose candidates consist almost exclusively of pin-ups, she stands out for seeming to incarnate the thesis that being environmentally friendly is good for the skin. In her canvassing outfit of white plimsolls, clinging white pedal pushers and environmentally friendly velvety green top — it might well have been a piece of some environment, perhaps a swamp in Sri Lanka — she sprang along the King’s Road handing out Green leaflets, which were readily accepted, especially by the men. From her they would have accepted a subpoena. Here was clear case of a born Tory who had gone missing. Her moment of revelation had occurred ‘beside a Friends of the Earth skip in Haslemere. I was looking at the champagne-fuelled haze and I thought there is more to life.’ She was right; there is. That’s how the Tories lost her. Labour hasn’t got her yet, but there is only one way for the Tories to get her back. An appeal to grassroots loyalty won’t do. For her, that grass was never green enough. She wants a better world for everyone. Michael Portillo will beat her, but the best thing about him is that he has already joined her. She threw her class instincts into the skip, and so did he.

3. Spontaneous Pint of Beer

For any ageing correspondent whose feet were giving out, the second weekend of the General Election carnival was a time for contemplation, stocktaking and summary. To put it another way, it was a chance to watch television. Out there on the road you pick up a lot of resonant detail, but the big picture is still on the small screen, because that’s where the campaign teams are aiming their efforts if they’ve got any sense. Charles Kennedy’s team actually admits it: their man doesn’t tour the regions, he tours the television regions. Wherever there is a studio, no matter how far flung — Dartmoor, the Lizard, Scapa Flow — he will get to it. And that’s the way he gets to you.

If he stuck to the national stuff, even Kennedy would be defined by how he stood up to getting worked over by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight. Though a Wark work-over must feel like being walked over by a water buffalo in stiletto heels, Kennedy handles it well. But he doesn’t have to care, because he’s already got the telly thing sewn up out there in the hinterland. If his points go up, you can bet that’s where it comes from.

After years under the aegis of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and their emulous oppos, it remains extraordinary how media-wise some of the leading politicians aren’t. Blair should have had a quotable paragraph ready for the woman at the hospital, and it wouldn’t have taken a tactical genius to figure out that John Prescott was eventually going to get hit with an egg. At Labour’s media training camp they should have rehearsed him with a few dozen cartons of Free Range hen-fruit, drumming it into him that when the inevitable albuminous missile made impact he should turn to the nearest camera, give it a wink, and say, ‘Labour prosperity means eggs to spare.’

A campaign that tries to airbrush out the awkward moments in advance looks mechanical, and its works are always vulnerable to a mislaid spanner. But to be ready for the awkward moments isn’t mechanical, it’s common sense. Admittedly not all eventualities can be anticipated. The first President Bush, after he vomited into the Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s lap at a formal dinner in Tokyo, would have done well to say, ‘That sashimi was so good I couldn’t keep it to myself.’ But Bush’s scriptwriters didn’t see it coming. Neither, presumably, did Mr Miyazawa, or he would have had a towel ready on top of his napkin.

The random stuff that happens on a walkabout would be a gift to the leaders if they had the sense of humour to enjoy the uncertainty, but only Kennedy has much of that. Faced with the unanticipated, Blair imitates the action of the goldfish, and Hague, for all his quickness of reflex, can only make debating points: he doesn’t engage with the punter, he disengages himself from the danger. But really it is an awful lot to ask of a politician that he should wing it like an improv actor. Even the best performers on Whose Line Is It Anyway? had a card-index of possibilities in their heads so that they couldn’t be stopped cold. You can’t blame the leadership back-up teams when they try to set the scene, vet the extras and repaint the décor. In their ideal world, a Party Election Broadcast would be the only kind of telly their blokes did.

Here again, Kennedy has come over best, perhaps because, in an art-form whose whole impulse is to eliminate contingencies, nothing can eliminate the contingencies of his fundamentally merry face. The only way to do that would be to eliminate him altogether, as the Tories, in the first two weeks at any rate, pretty well did with Hague: their Party Election Broadcasts, shot and lit like Escape from New York or Assault on Precinct 13, projected Britain as a Blackboard Jungle in which Willie Horton sat behind every desk. No doubt, in the original scripts, Hague was flying the rescue helicopter to lift you out, but he ended up on the cutting room floor. In the Labour PEB that started screening on Sunday night, everything ended up on the cutting room floor except Blair. The action was shot to advertising standards: if there had been a fly on the wall, it would have been a member of Equity. Blair’s spontaneous pint of beer was lifted at exactly the right speed and angle. We have since been given Alastair Campbell’s assurance that hoisting a pint was just something Tony happened to do when the camera was around. Cue footage of flying pigs.

On the scale leading down from calculation to chaos, the next rung under the PEB is the set speech to the faithful at which cameras happen to be present. The back-up team is in control of the setting and the leader is in control of what he says. Contingency, however, enters at the point where the evening networks decide which bits of the speech they will use. You can see a complete speech only on the fringe channels, where it usually turns out to be as boring as hell — a fair reason for the main channels not to run it holus bolus. But even if a leader’s oration is a heap of feldspar, it can sometimes be a gold mine of implication. On Friday evening, Sky News went live to Hague speaking in Manchester. ‘You know what I know, make no mistake about it, the Conservatives can win this General Election.’ A little of that went a long way, and a lot of it glazed the eyes like a Ming vase — not just your eyes but Hague’s too.

Further down the script, however, a bell rang. Hague mentioned the great unmentionable, the Millennium Dome! He said that the present government was ‘too embarrassed to knock it down’. He forgot to add that the last Conservative government hadn’t been too embarrassed about the idea of putting it up. Nevertheless, here was a hint of what Hague’s campaign might conceivably be doing instead of trying to reassure the dwindling Tory faithful that their leadership elite still shares their prejudices: it could have been attacking Blair’s administration on the mess it had made out of actually running things. It would need boldness from the Hague squad to attack foul-ups whose origin can be traced to their own party, but boldness Hague has, if it could only be used. Instead, with a target like transport wide open to be bombed, all the Tories can say about John Prescott is that he has the wrong instincts about incoming eggs.

As any Labour voter who rides the London tube is painfully aware, Prescott has a lot more to answer for than that. The transport snafu amounts to a national emergency, and few of the other public services are in much better shape. Yet the new all-Blair PEB is inviting an attack that never comes. ‘Work that we’ve started,’ burbles Blair, ‘and that we need to finish.’ You can say that again. And indeed he does say it again. ‘We’ve made a start, but haven’t finished it.’ How good a start? And how can you ever finish, if everything you have so far done compounds the shambles? The Tories never ask, and even the Lib Dems don’t go far beyond suggesting that more tax money is the solution. Although Portillo has given the occasional polite hint, there is nobody to say outright, and say often, that the public services are a question of organization. Labour is proposing a new way of organizing the health service, but Labour ought to look incredible about proposing a new way of organizing anything. Britain isn’t producing enough teachers to teach its own language. Britain can’t lay a railway line that doesn’t warp in the remorseless heat of its equatorial climate. Britain can’t get rid of a Dome that it didn’t know how to open for crowds that never came to see the marvels it did not contain. It’s Blair’s Britain that can’t do these things. So let’s get the bastard.

That last sentiment is not one I share, finding as I do that Blair’s repertoire of special voices arouses sympathy, rather in the way that a chameleon crossing a tartan kilt might make you want to pick it up and give it a rest. But why the other parties aren’t beating the crap out of his reputation for competence is one of the great mysteries of this greatly fascinating election. On the whole they are proposing to do what he does but either use less money (Tories) or more (Lib Dems). That there might be different and less shambolic means to achieve the same ends seldom comes up. The level of debate between the parties has never been lower.

The level of debate is higher on television, but not necessarily because the hard-arse interviewers have confirmed themselves in their new role as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The best you can say for them is that they are even-handed: they grill everyone at the same high temperature, taking the smell of charred flesh as a sign of success. If John Humphreys has his way, Keith Vaz will be deported as an illegal asylum-seeker. Jeremy Vine of Newsnight continues morphing himself into the new Paxo. The aforementioned Kirsty is a dominatrix out of the collective imagination of men whose idea of fulfilment is to be lashed around the parlour on all fours by a schoolmistress in leather underwear. But the torture is mainly about major money and minor detail. Eight billion, twenty billion, thirty-six billion. You didn’t deny that, does that mean you meant this?

The inquisitors are keeping the politicians honest, but at the price of keeping them running backwards with their gloves up. Here again, Kennedy does best of the top men. Jonathan Dimbleby is as tough as any of the hard-arses and has a far more developed historic memory, but Kennedy came out well from a gruelling one-on-one. He has the art of getting his message out along with a defensive jab. Hague, though the quickest-witted of them all, is hampered by the fact that his atavistic messages have to be defended anyway, so he is already running backwards on his way from the dressing room to the ring. As for Blair, all he can do with a needling question is look stung, as if his tormentors were ignorant of Blair’s Britain’s towering achievements. But the achievements are what is in question. Do they tower, or are they Dome-shaped?

It is hard for even the most choleric interviewer to inflict any real damage face-to-face, although he might enhance his own reputation by asking the same question umpteen times — the television equivalent of a ballerina’s thirty-two fouettés. Up-country, trailing Hague’s solitary school visit for Channel 4 News, Jon Snow capitalized niftily on the Tories’ Blackboard Jungle PEB by grabbing sound-bites from the kids in the playground. ‘You haven’t been burning any cars have you?’ The selected urchin had the perfect reply. ‘Not recently, no.’ At Smith Square they must have spat tacks when they saw that, but they ought to get their man ready for when he next meets Jon Snow on the road. Hague could ask, ‘You haven’t been burgled recently, have you?’ It is statistically almost certain that Snow’s reply will have to be ‘Quite recently, yes.’ But Snow is an old hand who can still outshine the new blood, like his namesake Peter, now equipped with a vampire-bait open-necked lemon shirt as he dodges emphatically among the virtual columns that show Labour right up here and everybody else right down there.

The fringe channels are way ahead on election debates, a fact that would be generally acknowledged if more people were watching. Channel 5’s 5 Talk on Friday at 6 p.m. was exemplary, although you have to be aware that one of the things that the show is exemplary of is Blair’s Britain, where classless young people look and dress like Frank Skinner and Gail Porter when she is dressed at all. 5 Talk is fronted by two fledglings called James and Lucy (they don’t seem to have any second names) whose costive tones might lead you to expect strident vacuity. On the contrary, they are fast-thinking and well informed. James, in particular, is a pink-shirted walking encyclopaedia of political savvy. The programme costs fourpence — Sir David Steel came in from Scotland on the phone, not in vision — but gets high-quality results, thereby reversing the trend of Millennium Dome culture.

The twin subjects on Friday were devolution and Europe. George from Norfolk had taught philosophy in Sweden for twenty-five years but still felt too British to join the euro. James asked: ‘Why would an economic policy wipe out a cultural heritage?’ Nobody in the Labour party has yet managed to put that thought into a single line. The discrepancy between yoof-struck format and adult argument was astonishing. The show looked like a mixture of The Big Breakfast and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, but it sounded like Plato’s Symposium. Plumbing the depths of their tiny budget, its creators sent out a leg-man billed as The Man in the White Suit to do cod scientific research in the street. He smuggled a taxi driver into a Lib Dem press conference on the economy and measured the cabbie’s pulse as it dropped to five beats a minute. People watching paint dry were proved to have the same level of cardiac excitement. (A few punters roped in off the street, a piece of chipboard, a tin of white paint, and one camera: cost, negligible. Joke, fabulous. Why can’t the big channels be that funny? Because they can’t think any way but big.) Michael Portillo missed a trick here. The Man in the White Suit caught up with him while he was canvassing. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Portillo, ‘I’ve got voters to meet.’ He was polite as always, but if he had submitted to the pulse test and said ‘Conservative politicians have the hearts of lions’ he would have met a lot more voters and made his party look cheerful and creative, instead of like the Bismarck steaming in a circle with its rudder jammed.

But the election show with most fun for grown-ups is The Boulton Factor, an annexe of Sky News. If you’re still looking for the women in this election, this is where they are. On the main channels you will see only Ann Widdecombe and the savagely divine Kirsty, who, you will have gathered by now, I have got on the brain. (In my dreams she interrogates me at the Ivy: ‘Why have you brought me here? What are your motives? What are these oysters for? Why won’t you answer the question?’) On The Boulton Factor you get the press babes as guests, and they are wonderful. Ann Leslie of the Mail dissects the candidates with the edge of a polished fingernail, and Julia Hartley-Brewer of the Mirror echoes the same unanswerable point she made in print: that the Tories have thrown their grappling hooks into their own ship. Terrific traffic, which the suavely thuggish Adam Boulton marshals like a master. He is never called Adam, by the way: he is just the Boulton Factor. This is the James Factor, saying watch out for Kennedy: if the big parties are dumb enough to go on playing follow-my-leader, the man in the middle could develop a column that will jolt Peter Snow out of his lemon shirt.

4. Follow That Bus

At the foot of the Millbank tower on Tuesday morning, we of the media gathered like a punishment battalion of termites briefed to attack a steel traffic bollard. We knew in advance that there wouldn’t be much to chew on. Soon Tony Blair’s bus would be heading out for an undisclosed destination. We would follow. When we got there, nothing much would happen, except in our dreams. We could dream of Blair being attacked with rocket launchers by half a dozen female OAPs screaming ‘Seventy-five p was a bloody insult, you grinning berk!’ There were shadowy figures within Millbank who believed that we might stop dreaming of something like that and start arranging it: that we might hire the Nolan Sisters, fit them out with a few lengths of plastic drainpipe, and let them loose at a photo op.

In the Millbank mind, where media control was invented, the media out of control is the demon that never sleeps. Unless you had signed on the dotted line for a seat on one of the two press buses, you weren’t supposed to go. I linked up with ace freelance photographer Brian Harris, who was covering the day for the Indy along with me. His handsome features weathered from years of room service, Harris is the breed of smudger who gets the shot if has to wade through a swamp, surface through pack ice, dance with the seventh wife of the mad revolutionary general. But he wasn’t too keen to get on a press bus that charges £540 for a day trip, and neither was I. Why not just hire a car and follow the buses? After all, it was a free country.

Patiently awaiting its precious cargo, the Blair bus was surrounded by demonstrators with signs saying KEEP CLAUSE 28. The kind of enthusiast who can surround you all on his own had a sign saying SEEK THE LORD WHILE HE MAY BE FOUND. Here was an argument for the prudence of keeping Blair’s various destinations a close secret: otherwise he would face torrents of this stuff when he got there, and perhaps worse. If Millbank overdid the caution vis-à-vis the press, Special Branch was merely being wise when it came to the loving public. In large letters, the back of the Blair bus was marked LEADERS TOUR. It was heading for the land where the possessive case has been abolished, and apostrophes are never used except incorrectly, to mark the plural. If I knew where Blair was going every day, I would be waiting there myself, holding my sign that says SO MUCH FOR YOUR EMPHASIS ON EDUCATION, DIMWIT.

To the drooping disappointment of the sign-holders, the Blair bus pulled away with no Blair in it. Maybe the Blair bus would pick Blair up at Downing Street. We piled into the car and headed off in that direction, but at Downing Street there was no Blair bus. Back at Millbank there were no press buses either: they had left without us, we knew not whither. Luckily, Harris had a contact on the second press bus who owed him one after a hairy moment in Beirut. Ducking beneath the surveillance of the on-board Millbank commissar, the contact whispered into his mobile that the bus convoy was proceeding through Notting Hill Gate, perhaps on the way to the West Midlands via Shepherd’s Bush roundabout.

We caught up with the second press bus on the M40 and sat behind it while Harris communed again with his contact. Newport had been mentioned as one of the day’s locations. It couldn’t be Newport Pagnell, and probably wasn’t Newport, Rhode Island: but there might be a Newport in or near Staffordshire. Harris signed off on the moby and studied the map, on which Staffordshire occupied about a thousand square miles. So there was no point trying to run up there ahead of them and lie in wait. Meanwhile I was calculating the total revenue per bus from forty or fifty media personnel all coughing up the full whack: somewhere north of 25,000 quid. ‘Almost enough to pay for the petrol,’ said Harris. It would have been a good line for Hague, who had run out of good lines the previous night while being trampled by Paxman.

The great Australian philosopher Rod Laver once said, ‘When you’ve got your man down, rub him out.’ Strategically, the idea makes sense, but not when extended to the spectators. By now Millbank had dealt with Hague: he had been rubbed out with such thoroughness that the only way you could tell where he had lain was by a man-shaped area cleaner than the surrounding pavement. But Millbank still had many enemies, and two of them turned out to be me and Harris. Whispered word came through from the bus that we had been spotted.

Somewhere in the command centre of the bus, Millbank operatives were processing the information that a mystery car had been observed trailing close behind the tinted back window. The face in the car’s front passenger seat checked out against the hostile media list. James, Clive, 61, Australian origin. Used to be on television, now active on the Internet. Thinks he’s funny. Back-seat passenger could be Harris, Brian, freelance photographer. Paying for divorce, ready for anything. Once got a shot of Blair in pyjamas with Mandelson picking his nose: not his own nose, Blair’s nose. High possibility of upcoming satirical attack at arrival point.

The easy course of action for Millbank would have been to buzz Special Branch and suggest that we be removed from the bus’s tail. It would have worked, too: Harris has so many points on his driver’s licence that he isn’t even allowed to be a passenger. But someone higher up the chain of command must have been given pause by two further considerations. The first consideration was that people are still legally free to travel on the open road, unlike on the railways, where they can travel only under tight restrictions. The second consideration was that the Bremner Battlebus Ban (instigated when it was assumed, perhaps correctly, that to give Rory Bremner a ride on the bus might result in his imitating everyone on board including the driver) had gained negative publicity. The current potential satirical attack was headed up by comparatively minor players but there could be a nasty media backlash if Special Branch took them out. Better use the charm weapon and suck them in.

Although we were getting our information from on board the bus, we had to deduce that last part. Until the bus arrived in Stafford we were still expecting to be stopped any time by a fast car full of heavy bluebottles saying ‘Breathe into this bag.’ But suddenly, strangely, the both of us were persona grata as the two press buses disgorged their cargo at a complex called THE STAFFORDSHIRE AMBULANCE SERVICE NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE TRUST HEADQUARTERS. The Blair bus, which Blair had joined en route after a quick flight, was circling the district in a holding pattern while the media took up position to cover the forthcoming spontaneity. The smudgers toted their trademark aluminium stepladders for seeing over the heads of the public, although these locations are so secret that it usually means seeing over the heads of nobody except reporters. I grabbed a spot on the ropes where I could clock the scene.

It looked like a military base. I counted at least thirty ambulance personnel in green overalls, most of them marked PARAMEDIC on the right breast, while the left breast bore the name: ALAN, PETER, GEORGE. (In the empire of New Labour, the valley of the lost apostrophe leads to the plateau of the missing surname.) The ambulances were all inside the hangar, where the main action would take place. A bomb-squad copper was towed past by his sniffer dog. The dog had that particularly hang-dog look that dogs get when their biggest thrill of the week is snorting a practice wodge of Semtex, but every other life-form on the concourse was polished and alert.

Abruptly I found myself being loomed over by an upright man in green overalls called Roger. He turned out to be the guy in charge of the whole outfit: Roger Thayne OBE, an ex-lieutenant colonel whose background in medical service includes the Falklands and Lockerbie. We had a point in common. Roger’s son-in-law commands the 4th Royal Australian Rifles, currently active in East Timor, where they had been in a skirmish only yesterday. After telling him how I approved of the Australian government’s action with regard to East Timor, I discovered that Roger didn’t necessarily approve of the British government’s action with regard to the Health Service. ‘What you’ve got in the Department of Health are people who have never seen a patient, and they are advising people who do see a patient.’ I asked him if more money would fix things and the answer was: not without a re-think. ‘It’s a question of morale. Doctors, nurses, want to look after patients, not paperwork.’

I was busily writing that down when the Blair bus pulled in and gave forth the power couple — Blair and Cherie, both in full smile mode, a grand total of sixty-four scintillating teeth exposed to scrutiny from a satellite. Blair had his jacket off already: ever since Peter Mandelson noted with horror that one of the smudgers had nabbed an under-arm sweat shot, Blair has been pre-cooled for all occasions. Bad news for jacket manufacturers, but it makes media sense. So do Cherie’s long-top pants suits with the long-toed shoes. During many a chat-stop on the way to the hangar, she proved her grace. She has a way of standing with one foot in front of the other, like a figure on an Egyptian frieze, although she does so with her legs crossed, as if Nefertiti were dancing the tango.

Soon they were inside being shown how the ambulance unit could electronically monitor patients at home, with the aim of cutting down the number of death-defying sprints to the hospital. A handsome South African doctor name-tagged ANTON VAN DELLEN (doctors still have surnames) proudly informed me that this was a cutting-edge set-up, but I wondered if, inside, anyone was telling Blair (a) that the secret of its success lay in the determination of its commander to fight his own war with no bullshit from upstairs, and (b) that the doctor was an import.

Dr Van Dellen strode handsomely away on his mission of mercy, to be replaced in my view by the celebrated Blairite apparatchik Anji Hunter. Access-starved journos tell me that Anji is a hard case, but she didn’t seem that way today. At my age I am immune to sexual desire, but there is a lingering aesthetic sense that appreciates a tall, slim female form draped in a black linen pants suit underpinned with strappy high-heeled sandals for the shapely feet, the toenails painted with the blood of slain lovers. This was one chic apparatchik. Getting as tough as I ever can when drowning in a woman’s eyes, I asked her why the Labour poster campaign was still screaming at the punters to get out there and vote in case Hague got in. She said, ‘Why don’t you have a word with Alastair?’ She meant Alastair Campbell, so she might as well have recommended having a word with Napoleon Bonaparte: nice idea, but it would depend on the availability.

Anji drifted elegantly back into the Blair bus and Alastair Campbell came hulking out of it. He was very nice. You could fill the Millennium Dome with media people eager to testify that he is not nice at all, but he was nice today. I don’t think he was turning it on, although clearly it can be murder when he turns it off. He wasn’t guarded in the least. When I suggested that New Labour no longer had any challenge from the left, he guilelessly let slip that Charles Kennedy might fill the bill. I noted that one down: the whole potential realignment of British politics compressed into a moment. His answer to the question I had asked Anji was simple: a foregone conclusion meant that the voters might stay home. When I said that the Tories might vanish altogether, he said ‘Good.’ He said it with a smile, but he meant it. ‘What about democracy?’ I wailed. This time his smile said he didn’t mean it. ‘Ah, come on. Don’t give me that stuff.’ I could have quoted him cold and launched a thousand cartoons, but it wouldn’t have been fair. His laughter said that what he was saying was preposterous. There is nothing preposterous, however, about the possibility.

Even with some of the polls adjusting the Labour lead downwards because of new rules for asking questions, we are looking at a one-party state for at least one parliament into the future. As Campbell went back into the bus to plug himself back into his information system that deals with millions of people all at once instead of one sweating hack at a time, I was pondering the implications. Tony and Cherie emerged from the hangar and proceeded down the concourse. Craning sideways, I could see Cherie dropping to a crouch, either to kiss babies or else to converse with children and very small adults. We were informed that at the next stop Blair would reassure Shropshire and the waiting world about New Labour’s commitment to a Strong Society. Medical staff would be safe from attack by schoolteachers driven crazy by late trains.

But I could catch the speech on the fringe channels late at night. Harris had got his stuff. The great thing about photographers is that they bring the same expertise to baby-kissing as they do to a Palestinian kid bouncing rocks off an Israeli tank: they do what they must, and when it’s done it’s done. But for a scribbler, the story rarely fits the frame unless he lies. Integrity means you can’t stop taking things in, and on the road back to London I took in the thing that mattered. It was buried on page 17 of a stapled clump of bumf handed to me by the indefatigable Roger. At the request of the NHS board, his ambulance unit was being studied by Sheffield University ‘to identify the transferability of the Staffordshire performance throughout the National Health Service’.

Eureka! If Roger’s irascible voice was going to be heard at government level, the implications were enormous. It meant that Labour would not just be bringing the private sector into the Health Service, it would be dumping its cherished top-down, target-setting management system. This was the very thing that Portillo was saying the Tories would do. The Tories wouldn’t be doing anything for the next hundred years, but if Labour moves in that direction it will be clear confession that from the health angle the whole of the last parliament was a waste. Tony’s campaign slogans for the public services boil down to ‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish.’ If he really means ‘I got it wrong last time but this time I’ll get it right’ he is open to an objection that uses the words ‘piss-up’ and ‘brewery’ in the same sentence. But New Labour certainly can organize a bus-trip.

5. Lunging for the Tape

On Monday afternoon William Hague was in the Wirral, where he said, ‘It’s a campaign that’s going very well.’ No doubt King Harold said the same thing at Hastings, while his troops kindly pretended not to notice the arrow sticking out of his eye. Scholars have yet to agree about which of the two Roman consuls, Aemillius Paullus or Terentius Varro, said the same thing at the battle of Cannae. To escape being massacred by 7,000 of Hannibal’s Libyan heavy troops, the depleted legions turned around just in time to be charged by 10,000 of Hasdrubal’s cavalry. At this point either Aemillius or Terentius said, ‘It’s a campaign that’s going very well.’ It probably sounded better in Latin.

There was comparatively little media coverage in ancient times: a concept difficult to explain to some of our young people today. Even for us adults it is sometimes hard to believe that there were no Big Brother cameras in the Garden of Eden to get the pictures of Adam and Eve being ejected naked. Nobody was watching. If Survivor had been there nobody would have been watching either, but Big Brother could have done a lot for Eve’s subsequent career as a lap-dancer. We are so accustomed by now to seeing people in toe-curling circumstances right there on television that we think it normal. But in the pre-electronic world, Hague would have been able to say ‘It’s a campaign that’s going very well’ and nobody would have caught the moment except the flabbergasted inhabitants of the Wirral. Today we can all watch and wonder. We can even wonder if he might be right.

For Hague to snatch a victory, the Queensland gambit would have to work. On the weekend, the press told us a lot about the Queensland gambit, a stratagem which can be outlined in a single sentence if you don’t mind doing without the graphs and pie-charts. The side sure to lose warns against the dictatorial ambitions of the side sure to win, whereupon everyone votes for the side sure to lose, which then wins. It worked in Queensland, but you have to remember that Australia’s most fun-filled state is also the place where the responsible authorities took a long look at the first cane toad and decided it was environmentally friendly. By the time they found out that it could poison a moving car and couldn’t be killed with a flame-thrower, it had spawned a million children and learned to vote.

For the Queensland gambit to work this week, Hague would have to distract our attention from a blatant contradiction in logic. If he means anything by saying that his campaign has gone very well, he must mean that the Tory faithful at which it was aimed have come back to the fold. If he simultaneously paints the picture of a triumphalist Labour government taking its overwhelming majority as a mandate to extinguish liberty, he must mean that there are no longer enough Tory faithful to vote their beloved party in. The second part of the anomaly concedes that the natural constituency of the Tories has shrunk to a rump, and thus concedes that he was wrong to aim his campaign at its traditional hopes and fears. Therefore the campaign was ill conceived and could never have gone well.

The Tories had made the capital strategic mistake of falling back to reinforce their base camp when it was already overrun, instead of staying out in the field, living off the land, and maintaining contact with the enemy. By late last week the Smith Square general staff had realized this, but they still hadn’t persuaded their field marshal, whose ebullience aroused memories of Montgomery during the Arnhem operation. Montgomery was still claiming a masterstroke after it turned out that he had dropped his paratroopers on top of a Panzer division. On Friday night Hague started lacing his speeches with some stuff about the public services, but was still banging on about asylum and the euro. By Sunday night, using God knows what combination of drugs and threats, his frantic lieutenants had persuaded him.

It must have been his toughest weekend: he has the guts to fight a losing battle forever, but to admit to your friends that you’ve been wrong takes character. Anyway, he did it, and on Monday he switched his themes to the central ground on which some of us had been expecting him to fight from the beginning. The new Tory PEB backed him on both strands: there was new stuff about the public services, emphasizing the undoubted fact that Labour’s claims to having made a good start were open to question. There was also some old stuff about undeserving interlopers and the threat to the pound, thus to reassure the diehards that their saviour was not repudiating his earlier stand. So the PEB was trying to attract the central vote without abandoning the faithful. Unfortunately the Queensland gambit tacitly admitted that not even both groups put together would be enough to swing it unless some of the central voters switched. It went without saying that if they did switch, they would switch to the Conservatives.

This was a big thing to go without saying, because there was always the chance that they would switch to the Lib Dems. Over in Labour’s Fortress Millbank, the anti-apathy scare campaign had the same drawback. If the sleeping voters piled out of their cots to stop the Tories by voting Labour, that would be OK. But what if they decided to stop the Tories by voting Lib Dem? Both main parties were thus running the risk of reinforcing the Lib Dems in the marginal seats. All Monday afternoon on Sky News you could watch the three leaders preaching to the nation through stump speeches in the marginals. Sky News has had a good election. As a lean operation it likes nothing better than free talent, and here were the three top performers each doing their full cabaret act live to camera for no fee. It was like getting the Three Tenors to sing at your daughter’s wedding under the delusion that it was a charity appearance.

Hague, as we have seen, was in the Wirral, warning the country against the dreadful consequences of the Labour landslide that wouldn’t happen because his campaign was going very well. Blair was at Enfield Southgate in London, the seat Portillo lost in 1997. Blair was talking to schoolchildren again: as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end. ‘We’ve still got a massive amount to do, but we’ve made a start.’ It was the same vulnerable message, but the man delivering it was at his best yet. He talked to the kids without talking down. ‘When I was young, anyone who owned a house voted Conservative.’ It would have been too complicated to explain to them that Margaret Thatcher had inadvertently created the new house-owning constituency that was now voting Labour, but there was not much he shirked.

You could see why Alastair Campbell loathes the idea of uncontrolled access. A big kid said that the local hospital had beds but no nurses. ‘We are recruiting,’ said Blair. If Jeremy Paxman had been standing there in short pants he would have pointed out that the nurses, doctors and teachers were being recruited anywhere in the world except Britain, whose education system had ceased to produce them. This kind of off-the-cuff stump confab can be lethally dangerous when the cameras are watching, but you can’t help feeling it ought to be the real stuff of politics, especially when even Blair was being forced to talk turkey. Another big kid — a black girl facing the daunting prospect of university tuition fees — was given a masterly answer that left none of the difficulties out. For once Blair had got it right: talking to the punter and letting the news crew overhear it, instead of talking past the punter into the camera. At last his campaign was going very well. But there was someone else whose campaign was going even better.

Charles Kennedy was at Cheddar Gorge in Wells, where the Lib Dem majority over the Tories is a mere 528. This was incubus territory for the two main parties, because if the dozy swing voters they are trying to motivate should make their mark for the Lib Dems instead, the Tories will have worked to their own ruin and Labour will reinforce a new opposition. But a nightmare for them was dreamland for Kennedy. It was easy to predict, when the Lib Dem manifesto proposed raising taxes, that Kennedy was running for second spot. With the Lib Dem poll figures in the low teens the idea looked romantic. Now their poll figures were in the high teens and it looked classical: a flanking run on the wing with a smile of pity for the opposing forwards as they moved across too late. ‘They need sensible and worthwhile opposition,’ he said, meaning Labour. ‘They’re not going to get it from the Conservatives.’ He said the Tories were heading for civil war. Meanwhile the media were heading for him. By this time he didn’t need Honor Blackman to help him hog the screen-time. Up there in Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson must have been shaking his elegant head in admiration, like one of the Wright Brothers watching newsreel footage of Baron von Richthofen. Look what the new boys were doing with his invention.

Monday was probably the crucial day of the election. In the evening, Blair went up against Paxman on Newsnight. The previous week, Paxman had pounded Hague into the floor of a setting that looked like Pebble Mill At One in the days when the local punters pressed their noses against the window to watch an alderman being interviewed about the exciting prospects in store for Birmingham. The Prime Minister was in a position to stipulate a more dignified ambience, but he must have been well aware that the one-on-one with a career hard-arse like Paxman is his most perilous gig. Up-country on Friday afternoon, Jon Snow had hammered Blair on the transport issue: the issue the Tories had had to lay off because they invented the mess. Snow was less hampered by guilt. When Blair recounted what Labour had set out to do, Snow said, ‘You didn’t do it.’ Blair had had no answer ready, but he was ready for Paxman.

Diving at you with a screaming snarl, Paxman carries all kinds of ordnance under his wings — smart bombs, rockets, napalm canisters — but the weapon to watch out for is the toffee apple. Blair dodged everything except the sticky question about why he let Mandelson resign if Mandelson had done nothing wrong. But otherwise the triumph of his defence was the way he turned to the attack. Paxo was out to lunch about the gap between rich and poor. Blair was needlessly windy in his answer. He could have just said that if the poor get richer it doesn’t matter how rich the rich get: it’s the only way to tax them progressively, because if you hike the rate they dodge it or decamp. (The same message worked for Ronald Reagan: it multiplied the deficit, but it kept him in office.) Blair couldn’t get that idea into a snappy line, but at least he had an answer. Paxo was out to lunch, dinner and the next breakfast when he asked Blair to feel sympathy for Hague, and this time Blair said exactly the right thing. ‘I sympathize with anybody who leads the Conservative party.’ Across the lower half of Paxman’s features, a smile of acknowledgment appeared: fleeting but with a hint of warmth, like summer in England.

As they settled down for the run to the judge — such was the catchphrase of the great Australian race commentator Ken ‘Magic Eye’ Howard — there was time for speculation about the future. Back at the start of all this I made the large prediction that it would be the most fascinating election of modern times, because although almost nothing would happen beforehand, almost everything would happen afterwards. It was an easy sooth to say: clearly the Tories will have to start again. You can have a lot of fun fiddling with the chess pieces. The longer Hague stays, the better for Portillo, especially if a euro referendum comes up: if Portillo has to lead against that, his hands are tied by what he has already said while backing Hague. Kenneth Clarke would be free to argue on terms instead of attacking the principle, but he can’t be brought back until Central Office gives up altogether on the Little England thing, which means saying goodbye to home base for keeps. They should have drafted Chris Patten any way they could: he is bound to be their Grey Eminence, but with an official post he could have done something to shut up the Black Widow, whose ‘Never’ speech left Hague’s ankles tied with his own trousers.

But the realignment might go far beyond that. If the Tories are wrecked, it is because they have been replaced by Labour as the wealth party. If Labour can be opposed only from the left, it won’t be by its own left, which is irrevocably wedded to a chimera: an unaspiring working class that had to be fobbed off with social justice because it could never get preferment. Now that the whole country is either middle class or on benefits, the natural New Left are the Lib Dems. Kennedy has everything to play for, including the delicious possibility of offering the Tories an alliance instead of asking for one. He went into this election as Prince Hal, a joker of the panel games who stayed too long in the hospitality rooms afterwards because the girls were pretty and the talk was good. He will come out of it as Henry V, with Labour as the French army: overconfident, overmanned, and above all overmanaged.

Too thoroughly convinced by its own success in managing its bid for supremacy, Labour is still under the illusion that the public service departments can be managed the same way. Labour is already talking of a new, supreme management layer to manage the management layers. The Millennium Dome not only hasn’t gone away: it’s expanding. Unless Professor Quatermass can find a way to stop it, the damned thing will cover the entire country. As the grisly envelope eats its way outwards, its quisling minions will be open to ridicule from anywhere except the old right wing that wants to cut the public sector back. The public doesn’t want the public sector cut back. The public wants the public sector fixed, and by now everyone belongs to the public. There are no leafy enclaves: there is no house, be it ever so grand and well protected, that can’t be reached by Big Brother, a cold call, a dope dealer or a thief. The British are all in it together at long last.

Speaking as an Australian by birth and upbringing, I can promise you that equality won’t be as bad as you think. It just means giving up on the idea that there is a class born to rule. The idea had some attractive aspects: the born rulers were often cultivated and public-spirited, and their women gracious and well-spoken. Goodbye to all that. What you have to watch out for is the new rulers: getting there took fanatical application, and now they find it hard to stop being fanatical. Last week I tailed one of the Blair press buses up to Stafford. Now Millbank wants to charge the Independent £540 for a bus ride I wasn’t even on. It would appear that my name is on a list. Free men don’t like lists, and confident rulers don’t keep them.

6. Standing on a Landslide

On Thursday morning there was finally time to think. Media people who had spent weeks on the press buses awoke to the strange spectacle of a view through the window that did not move. It would be a long day before the polls closed, and the mind was free to ponder the paradoxes of democracy, the sweep of history, the vanity of human wishes and the startling beauty of David Beckham.

In Athens on Wednesday night, Beckham was a poetic thing to see. He didn’t have to be scoring a goal to look poetic. He looked poetic just trapping a lobbed ball with his chest, as if rising to sacrifice himself by intercepting a meteorite. He looked poetic just standing there, while the missiles sportingly thrown by the Greek fans bounced around him. He looked too poetic to be the incarnation of a socio-political trend, but he was.

So was Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, but Hitler didn’t get the point. Blinded by racial science, Hitler stuck to his conviction that America was decadent. He couldn’t see that a nation able to produce so beautiful and accomplished a human being out of its own underclass had a lot better chance of dominating the world than he did. If Owens had been white, Hitler might have seen the truth.

If David Beckham talked and dressed like Edward Fox, we might see it too. But the self-mutilating haircuts, the hunger for tattoos, the marriage to one fifth of a pop act and the lifestyle out of Graceland by way of Playboy Mansion West all combine to delude us that he is a prisoner of vulgarity, a clumsy aspirant to the standards of his betters. Forget about it. This is a man who knows his place in a new sense: that there is no place above his he would care to reach. Half a century ago, he would been been six inches shorter, worn shorts as long as his little legs, earned a fixed wage, saved up for a bungalow and counted it a great day if he shook hands with royalty. Now he is royalty. He is a king, and Victoria is his queen: he’s got a better deal than Prince Albert. There is scarcely a man in the land who would not like to be him, up to and including the Duke of York, who would love to shine on the golf course as Beckham does on the football field, but has been held back by his birth.

Rewind the tape sixty years, to a conversation between Churchill and Lord Halifax. Churchill was no social radical, and Halifax was so reactionary he would have handed the country to the Nazis if they had guaranteed to preserve his privileges. But the two true-blue Tories were agreed that ‘the boys from the state schools’ had done well in the Battle of Britain, and that when the day came they should have their chance to rule.

Since they were presaging nothing less than doom for the Old Establishment of which they were parts of the furniture, their colloquy was a pretty generous gesture, perhaps made easier by the likelihood that it would take a long time to come true. And such, indeed, was to be the case. The Prime Minister of today is still one of the boys from the private schools. But Tony Blair presides over a country that has changed on just the lines those Old-Boy old boys predicted, although it took every contentious minute of the elapsed time for Britain to get to where it is now.

The welfare state was an Establishment invention: Lord Beveridge was an Old Boy par excellence. The retreat from Empire was managed by the Conservatives, not by Labour: Iain MacLeod, although sulphurously branded with the sign of the intellectual, was a Tory grandee in all other respects. Over-impressed less by Marxism than by the planning that won the war, the Labour party wedded itself to a command economy. Hugh Gaitskell joined his name to Rab Butler’s, but Butskellism could fly only so far from Labour’s traditional expectations before the chain on its leg brought it back. Harold Wilson, the only Labour Prime Minister before this one who ever got used to winning, did so because he was a juggler who could placate the union block votes by allowing them to think that some day their dream would come true.

But their dream could never come true, and the Labour party’s best minds knew it. Finally Roy Jenkins, the key man in the whole reforming process that has led Labour to its present command of the centre instead of an unenviable domination of the left edge, headed the breakaway. He is still often condemned for being a would-be Establishment figure himself, a sucker for the hallowed ploy by which the landed ascendancy absorbed its enemies on the left, gagging them with ermine. Certainly the present Chancellor of Oxford University has had a lifelong interest in filling his place at high tables. But he was a true rebel.

Both Gordon Brown and Michael Portillo have no doubt studied Jenkins’s use of the chancellorship as a training ground and a launching pad. Whether or not Jenkins guessed that his Social Democratic Party would have only a limited life is a nice question. But he certainly knew that his personally created fronde would force Labour to think again about the command economy. Labour’s switch to the centre was already under way when Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands gave her the boldness to launch free market economics. Michael Foot was thrown as a sacrifice on to the guttering pyre of Old Labour’s incinerated delusions. Clause 4, the sacred text of universal nationalization, was kept on the party card only as a talisman: not as an article of faith, but as a gesture to past legitimacy. Kinnock got stuck with the gesture.

Kinnock didn’t win the country, but he won the party that rules it now. Labour was set free from its dragging links to the industrial proletariat, which Thatcherism had atomized: the lower orders had divided into the prosperous and the unemployed, and the only answer to unemployment was expansion. John Major was the Tories’ first overt answer to Labour’s drive into the centre: ever since the cautionary tale of Sir Alec Douglas-Home the Tories had fielded leaders of relatively humble origins — the boys and girls from the state schools — but they had all behaved as if their eventual place in the Establishment was the destiny that had shaped them from the start. Major looked shaped by the humble origins. His fate was to be lampooned by the new media ascendancy that likes its politics drawn as a cartoon, with the grandees in their great houses and the representatives of the common people sullen at the gates. But reality was no longer like that. By countenancing Major’s leadership at all, the Tories were already saying goodbye to their perennial snobberies.

* * *

They just didn’t say goodbye fast enough, and Labour got in. But goodbye — a long goodbye, admittedly — is what the more enlightened Tories had been saying ever since the war. It was in giving up their empire, their privileges and their prejudices that they had been at their best. If they had studied their own history better, they would be doing better now. The dumbest of them needed total disaster as a teaching aid. But the cleverest, and the best, have provided for decades an example that Cool Britannia would do well to study. The Tories who believed in public service were cultivated enough to want a cultivated country. Their civilized enclave was not enough for them. I can remember a time when Tory peers vied with Labour peers for the honour of raising the taste of the people: which was, after all, the same ideal that the red radical Gramsci died cherishing.

The New Britain is philistine to the core. It is one of the cruellest paradoxes of my time in Britain that its once fruitful broadcasting system now reinforces the stupidities it was brought into being to ameliorate. To compound the paradox, a woman who thinks of herself as a Conservative started the rot: when Margaret Thatcher removed the quality requirement from the ITV franchise bids, she blew the whistle for the rush to triviality. It was a crime bred from the capital error of thinking that an ideology can be a view of life. The free market has an unrivalled capacity to harness brains. But the free market does not have a mind, and its bastard child, managerialism, is not a thing of the spirit: just a toy for the untalented.

Such aberrations would matter less if Britain, at governmental level, had any real management tradition to draw upon. But since the war Britain has had an almost flawless record of being unable to assemble its technologists under a competent technocrat. Instead it has assembled them under incompetent committees, and the results lie rotting and rusting in a crowded chronological line: the groundnut scheme, the Brabazon, Blue Streak, Skybolt, the TSR2, the tilting train, Nimrod. So many and huge have been the fiascos that they would scarcely fit into the Millennium Dome — the supreme fiasco, and the true symbol of the Blair government’s first term of office. Labour’s only excuse for the Dome is that the Tories planned it. In that respect as in so many others, the two great parties are squeezed together by intimate historic bonds. It will be interesting to see if a third great party, if there is to be one, will know how to detach itself from the Dome culture, which can be defined as the unfortunate tendency to engage in gigantically superfluous schemes when the essential matters of public welfare are smothered in paperwork.

The broadcasting system showed a hint of its old glory on Thursday night, when the election programmes took over the studios of the main channels and managed to include some actual human beings along with the virtual technology. The lesson that the viewing public does not give a shit about virtual technology will probably never be learned: it runs counter to every channel controller’s unshakeable belief that the small screen must be made large by the flash of gadgets, or else the fatally distractable punters will switch off to watch something else — a pin-ball machine, say, or their washing machine on its second rinse.

Sky News had done well throughout the campaign season, but on the big night even they decided that the droll Adam Boulton needed assistance from tables that lit up, walls that swivelled, and hovering gizmos that represented the state of the parties with creepily contracting and expanding suppositories: a visual pain in the arse. I wanted to see Boulton shooting the bull with Ann Leslie and the press babes, but no chance. Nobody can compete with the Beeb when it comes to doodads, so there is no point trying. At BBC1, David Dimbleby, born under the old Establishment in the days when it knew what it was doing, presided over a studio gone bananas.

Peter Snow’s tomato sauce shirt was the closest touch with reality. Everything else was virtual. There were neon staircases in the sky with robotic simulacra of the party leaders climbing up them or threatening to fall off the edge. A staircase that was presumably real — unless Snow himself was virtual, a distinct possibility — was wheeled on so that he could run up and down it, shrieking and choking simultaneously while his artificial paradise swirled and swam with images utterly stunning in their irrelevance. There was also a new laser version of the Swingometer. In the long-gone reign of Bob Mackenzie, the Swingometer was a piece of cardboard and it told you something. Now it can shoot down a flying saucer but it tells you nothing.

In keeping with the election’s strange mood of misogyny, the whole demented Beeb scene was all but babe-free. Boys’ toys it had in plenty, but you looked in vain for the swell of a breast. Unfortunately for the cause of the banished women, David Dimbleby’s one and only female aidette completely missed the point about the return from Oldham West, which revealed the sudden and shocking electoral presence of more than 5,000 potential Nazis. David wanted to talk to her about that, but she wanted to talk about something else.

Elsewhere in the asylum, Jeremy Paxman was in charge of a mezzanine area called The Café. No refreshments were served, perhaps as a gesture to Paxo’s satiated state. (He was still digesting William Hague.) But the human conviviality was a welcome relief from the dingbat electronics. One of Paxo’s guests was Neil Kinnock. In a moment of brain-fade, Paxo drew Kinnock’s attention to the beamed-in image of Blair’s car arriving at the count in Sedgfield. Paxo said that the car contained Neil Kinnock. The delighted Kinnock said, ‘I should be so lucky.’ You could see what Kinnock has that Blair hasn’t: an unstudied amiability. You could also see what Blair has that Kinnock hasn’t: the Prime Ministership.

Over on ITV, David Dimbleby’s brother Jonathan had an out-of-body experience to match Paxo’s. Jonathan screwed up his commentary on the Torbay declaration by mixing up the parties. He owned up like a man. ‘I’m a complete nana.’ In all other respects he was running the superior studio. John Sergeant, all on his own, did the work of six people in the Beeb studio, and did it better. Losing Sergeant can be counted as one of those little triumphs that are steadily lobotomizing the Corporation. ITV had plenty of Beeb-style virtual hoo-hah but Sergeant’s presence made up for it. He is not beautiful, but he is bright. Mary Nightingale was there too, and she is both. Good looks ought not to matter in female television presenters, but at three o’clock in the morning I couldn’t see the harm.

The studios turned red as the night wore on, with proportionately less blue and a startling amount of yellow. As with the election campaign, there was much pizzazz but little tension. Speculation on the aftermath was already rife. At BBC1, Paddy Ashdown used a startling word about the Tory future. The word was ‘split’. He wasn’t pursued on the point, but he ought to have been. Surely the Europhile and Europhobe wings of the Conservative party can’t be reconciled: they spring not from two opinions, but from two separate views of the modern world. Here was a topic begging, nay barking, to be discussed. It was decided that the topic of when Hague would be dumped was more interesting.

The new era dawned with Blair’s arrival at Millbank. At 7 a.m. Blair was hailing Gordon Brown as ‘a brilliant chancellor’ but their warm embrace lasted 0.006 seconds on my laser chronometer. If they have made a secret deal about the succession, God help them both. A secret deal between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating bedevilled Australian politics for a decade. At Smith Square, Hague was closeted with his advisers. What were they advising now? Perhaps he was advising them. ‘Call to me all my sad captains,’ said Mark Antony at the moment when he, the saddest captain of them all, realized what he had to do. Hague came out, addressed the cameras, and fell on his sword. He went the way he fought, with bravery. What Sven Goran Eriksson said about David Beckham in victory applied to Hague in his defeat. ‘He behaved like a captain.’


From 19 May 2001 onwards, the above six pieces appeared in the Independent at various times during the two weeks of the General Election. Originally only three pieces were commissioned, but I got carried away, and the editor, Simon Kelner, generously went with the flow as my dispatches came pouring in. Later on, during the invasion of Iraq, the perfect word popped up: ‘embedded’. Following one party’s bus in an election campaign, even if that party is the likely winner, you are as effectively blocked off from a general picture of the action as a journalist embedded in an armed formation. The journalist tries to tell himself that the smell of a sweaty flak jacket and the nearby crunch of a mortar bomb are bringing him and his readers into an unprecedented intimacy with the action, but the prosaic truth is that neither he nor they would have a clue what was going on even if all the embedded reports could be combined into one. I really thought I was on to something when I chanced on the bumf about the ambulance unit: hence my gung-ho tone. The facts alas said that the Labour strategists had no intention of following up that particular lead: it was strictly a photo opportunity. On the other hand, I made the right guess when I suggested that the Conservative party was about to disappear. But I didn’t need to be at a tube station with Michael Portillo to figure that out. What was useful, about slogging along with the foot soldiers, was the reminder that politics is grinding work, best done by proper grown-up people who can survive without immediate applause. It really isn’t a bit like show business. Anthony Howard and several other qualified commentators said nice things in private about my potted analysis of recent British history, but once again I didn’t need to be out there meeting the people to get all that. I got most of it from books. For the politician to get out there, however, can be very handy, especially if he has the knack of taking in what he sees. Four years later, John Howard won his third Federal Election in Australia largely because he was a lot better than his opponent at telling what the average home owner was thinking. The Australian intelligentsia, stuck inside its jacuzzi of constantly recycled opinion, was convinced that the average home owner was motivated by nothing except the deadly fear of a hike in the mortgage rate. Howard knew better than to call 50 per cent of the population cowards. A stint on the bus or the zoo plane is still the best way to be reminded that human beings are not statistics, even when they vote.