Two days later the result of the first ballot to choose a new leader was announced. The winner was Michael Foot, who had shown up for the Downing Street banquet wearing a dinner jacket with a National Union of Mineworkers badge in the lapel.
That, too, was only his little joke. But it is also an elegant illustration of the political and cultural confusion of the Labour Party, and of a pervasive ambivalence about the status quo so deep as to approach hypocrisy. Of this confusion and ambivalence, Harold Wilson was the supreme example, the brilliant manipulator, and ultimately the tragic victim.
From the very beginning, the Labour Party was led by an uneasy coalition of toilers and toffs. One of the odder of the latter was Gavin Henderson, later Lord Faringdon, who had a curious mural painted in the orangerie- turned-swimming pool of his Palladian villa at Buscot Park, representing the Oxford Labour Party marching as to war under the red flag.
Many of those who were to lead the Labour Party in its hour of glory after 1945 can be recognised in the Buscot mural: brilliant products of the most august public schools and the most fashionable Oxford colleges, such as Frank Pakenham and Richard Crossman, converted to socialism by some personal blend of hostility to the prefect system and sympathy for the wretched of the earth.
Others who marched beneath the crimson banner were authentic sons of the working class: men such as Ernie Bevin or Nye Bevan. Harold Wilson, on the other hand, who made it to the top of the greasy pole when far more promising contestants from his own Oxford generation - such as Crossman, Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey - didn't quite, was neither toiler nor toff. He came from bang in the middle of the middle middle class. He was the clever son of an industrial chemist who experienced both unemployment and relative prosperity. The family were Manchester non-conformists, and Wilson's political culture seems to have been a hybrid. One of its seeds was the Northern non-conformist's intent to build, not the socialist utopia, but Jerusalem; another the clever scholarship boy's conviction that he could do a better job than the fools who were in power.
Wilson, at any rate, was a liberal at Oxford, and one of those who worked closely with him in early 1944, when he allowed his name to go forward as a Labour candidate, said of him later: 'If you'd asked me at the time, honestly, I'd have said he was a Liberal.'
Many who knew him best were even ruder. Ian Mikardo, Wilson's comrade on the Labour left in the days of Nye Bevan, said bluntly: 'Harold had no principles at all,' though he made a partial exception of Wilson's 'devotion to the cause of Israel'. His closest political friend, Richard Crossman, was even more damning. 'Here is an object lesson,' he wrote of one of Wilson's so-sharp-he-cut-himself manoeuvres, 'in the master tactician and the super-opportunist, who is so clever that his tactics are disastrous and he destroys his opportunities'.
Austen Morgan's biography has its flaws. It is disfigured by odd editing, poor spelling and strange turns of phrase, such as consistently writing 'like he' instead of 'as if he'. More important, although Morgan has done an immense amount of work, and shows flickers of real insight into political motivation, his narrative stumbles steadily forward without articulation. Again and again the reader beseeches him to slow down and address the complexities of the political situation faced by his hero; instead of which, Morgan recounts only Wilson's perception of it, or else that of Barbara Castle, Crossman, Crosland and the other memoir writers on whom he so heavily depends.
It is not clear from what ideological position Morgan writes. There are hints that he is himself a socialist of some variety, and that he regrets the opportunities wasted by Harold Wilson and the party he led from 1963 to 1976. In any case, he has done enough to paint a horrifying portrait of a political party frustrated, not by the machinations of its enemies, but by its own instinct for the petty, the parochial and the paranoid.
Wilson himself became clearly paranoid on certain subjects. He seems to have become convinced not only that South African state security, some members of the British security service and much of the British press were conspiring against him, in which there was an element of truth, but also that all these separate machinations were but parts of the Plot, a single conspiracy to defeat him as the embodiment of political virtue and of the aspirations of decent working people.
The spectacle had the whiff of political grand guignol, of Rowlandson or Georg Grosz. There was Harold Wilson embattled in Number 10, puffing away at the cigars and getting stuck into the brandy, camouflaged by his spin-doctors as a pipe and a glass of whisky because those sounded less elitist indulgences. Around him revolved the concentric worlds of Westminster, Whitehall and the Labour movement. There at the heart of the web he sat, presiding over a dazzling court of socialist and not-so-socialist property developers, impresarios and financial wizards.
At the end, with all the resources of a movement, a party and a government to advise him, he listened most closely to just three: his former secretary Marcia Falkender, Joe Haines and Bernard Donoughue, the last two of whom later transferred their loyalty and special skills to the service of Robert Maxwell.
It was not, in truth, as bad as all that. If Morgan had tackled the big problems with which Harold Wilson wrestled - economic failure, devaluation, inflation and labour discontent among them - he would have recognised more clearly that they were all facets of one problem, national decline. In that context Wilson may come to be seen as less of a comic than a tragic figure, not a Canute trying to stop the tide so much as a man who set himself the impossible task of trying to reform the British economy within the same assumptions that had led to its decline.
The portrait that Morgan paints is not of such a political hero, however. It is of the leader whom the Labour Party of his generation deserved: an appropriate leader for a party led by squabbling careerists who pretended they wanted to overturn the apple cart, when all most of them wanted was their turn at the apples.