BOOK REVIEW / Man who wrote the words for Mrs T: A View from the wings by Ronald Millar; Weidenfeld pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ARE speeches at party conferences for? A party leader doesn't seek to persuade his audience to do something, as a barrister seeks to persuade a jury or a trade union official a group of workers. Conference speeches don't win elections, either: Neil Kinnock, the best platform orator in contemporary British politics, lost two. And given the work that goes into them - Sir Ronald Millar talks nostalgically in this book of the 'agony, despair and lack of sleep' suffered by the team who wrote Margaret Thatcher's conference speeches - they are, with few exceptions, quickly forgotten.

It may be that those very exceptions, like Thatcher's 'You turn if you want to. The Lady's Not For Turning' in 1980, provide the clue. It's appropriate that TLNFT - as actor and playwright Millar calls his most famous creation - should have guyed the title of a play by Christopher Fry. Millar's contention, and he claims gradually to have persuaded Thatcher of it, is that 'politics' - or rather political speeches - are 'a form of theatre'. Certainly the best political performances, like the best dramatic ones, electrify at the time and then embed themselves in the collective unconscious.

Despite a gung-ho style which never shakes off the racy mixture of Charterhouse, the wartime Royal Navy and the greenroom, this book is seldom boring. Millar points out that TLNFT is not a one-liner - a form which has no context - but something more precious and elusive: the perfect sound- bite. Scarcely ever has so much been owed to so few words. The immediate effect was to diminish the wets in the Cabinet who had been confident that they could make her change economic course; more lastingly, they defined her unique selling point as a leader.

But in one important respect the book is already out of date. Millar is pained to report that his heroine is 'distant, even cold' to those who, like him, transferred happily from her inner circle to Major's. He finds it difficult to reconcile himself to the truth that she sees Major as having betrayed what Millar describes as her 'troubled inheritance'.

A natural courtier, Millar cannot bear to criticise the present PM - and after all the book was completed just after Major's 1992 election triumph. To the author, Major has 'concern, warmth, cool, tact, and a mind like a meat cleaver'. He will 'restore the nation's belief in itself'. Just now, it doesn't look like that, and it would be nice to know if Millar has since changed his mind. Certainly he seems to have been able to do little for Major's speeches. Compare, for example, the recent and leaden 'I am fit. I am well. I am here - and I'm staying' with Harold Wilson in the midst of the cabinet plots against him: 'I know what's going on - I'm going on.'

Perhaps some of the old Millar magic will rub off on what looks like being a crucial conference speech for Major this October. Or perhaps the problems are too severe even for the man about whom Mrs Thatcher once gushed: 'There is no better wordsmith in politics than Ronnie.'