Outdoor interviews, verbal gaffes, blazing sun, curious tourists - Ian Parker enjoys a circus atmosphere outside Parliament
ON THURSDAY, nominations closed for the Conservative Party leadership election, and the sun shone all day on College Green. When an Australian broadcaster put an aerosol spray to her hair, great clouds of mist caught the light, and hung above her, as if she were slightly on fire. "Long- time insiders here," she said to camera, "describe the atmosphere as feverish and conspir-" she fluffed the line. "Sorry." She got out a mirror, and did more spraying, as if somehow the hair were to blame. Sunburnt BBC technicians near by muttered to themselves, more sympathetic than mocking. "Oh dear. How many times now?" "Eleven." "Eleven?" The Australian woman started again: "Long-time insiders here," she said, "describe the atmosphere as feverish and consp. No, no. Sorry."

College Green is a small dry plot of grass across the road from the House of Lords. A wide path runs diagonally through it with 1960s boldness, and on one side there is a depressing Henry Moore sculpture called Two Knife Edged Bronze which various tourists have co-signed. There are some benches, and flowers in angular concrete tubs. Almost anywhere else in the British Isles, this would be an ideal spot in which to drink Tennent's Super lager and set cats alight, but, thanks to its location, this is where the press and MPs meet at times when British politics is especially feverish and conspiratorial.

On Thursday lunchtime, there were a dozen camera crews on College Green, each set up to avoid the sight of any other crew in the background of its shot. (Foreign crews try to get Big Ben, and traditional double-decker buses; domestic crews require only the general suggestion of the Palace of Westminster.) Tourists moved from one crew to another, with quiet attention, as if on a guided tour of a sculpture park. By their ebbs and flows, these visitors supplied an instant recognition rating for the politicians in front of the cameras, who remained spookily unsweaty under the sun and under the lights.

Various factors have conspired to turn College Green into this spectacle: the whetting of public appetite for parliamentarians following the televising of Parliament in 1989; the setting up of TV studios down the road at 4 Millbank; advances in lightweight electronic cameras (there is no longer the need for outside-broadcast juggernauts). According to Channel 4's Elinor Good- man, who on Thursday was awaiting her turn with Stephen Dorrell: "It really exploded, really came into its own with Thatcher's departure. But they're not letting us put the Portakabins in this time - because we made such a mess before."

Politicians and journalists seem to enjoy it. Bill Cash, in a pale linen suit, praised the "fresh air" - both actual and metaphorical. He explained: "The best way to keep a secret is to make a speech in the House of Commons." Whereas here, you can "communicate with the outside world on a massive scale ... It's a good thing for democracy. Oh yes. The only thing is in the winter - you can still have a huge issue, but it's damn cold."

On days like last Thursday, there tends to be quite a crowd; on College Green, politics actually manages to look feverish and conspiratorial. In the quiet, handsome streets behind the Green, acknowledged and unacknowledged campaign headquarters were staked out by dozing sunstruck photographers. Politics hid behind crowd barriers and window blinds. But on the Green, there was action.

Kenneth Edwards, a retired architectural technician from Brentwood in Essex, was sitting in the shade, and was midway through a carefully budgeted and rather enviable day-trip in town, pounds 4.70 return. On a day like this, he said plausibly, "you just think, isn't London nice?". He'd been to a free concert at the Royal Festival Hall, where for some reason he had been given about 40 free packets of Phileas Fogg crisps. In the afternoon he was hoping to secure a standby ticket to Ain't Misbehavin' at the Lyric in Shaftesbury Avenue. And in between, there was this extraordinary free drama of College Green: Cabinet ministers, celebrated television anchormen in double-breasted suits, a coquettish Teresa Gorman, pretending to strop off just before a live interview, and scores of television people in a terrible panic: "Can't hear. Still can't hear. Still can't hear." This must be one of the few places in the country where you'll hear the words "Harry Greenway's arrived!" spoken with such excitement and relief.

And at one o'clock, John Redwood himself, walking on to the Green with the words, "I'd rather be sunbathing". A crowd of 50 or so watched him interviewed live on the One O'Clock News - standing in obedient line next to Jonathan Aitken - and witnessed for themselves the man's unreal use of volume and emphasis, which he unleashes on words! without warning. He speaks like a man trying to stop himself falling asleep.

After the television, radio. Mr Redwood walked a few dusty paces to The World at One, which was also being broadcast direct from the Green. The programme's presenter, Nick Clarke, was sitting at a cloth-topped table and was talking to an invisible producer with some urgency. The scene - an outdoor office - had something Monty Pythonish about it. But like much going on in the Green, it will have also reminded onlookers of those few weird occasions in their schooldays when the schoolroom went outside: strange, hot afternoons when rules seemed to bend to the touch. In a campaign marked by a demob spirit in the candidates and the electorate, it was only right that College Green felt like one's last ever double French lesson.

Nick Clarke was saying: "Someone please talk to me." Then: "We'll do Redwood next." Realising who he was sitting next to, he revised this to "Mr Redwood", which caused the slightest of smiles to creep on to the candidate's face.

David Evans, the MP for Watford Hatfield, had been one of the first on College Green, at 7am. Twelve hours later, the shadows were long again, cameramen were packing up, and asking colleagues from rival organisations: "You in tomorrow?" as if this really was a shared office. And Mr Evans was still at it. Interviewed between interviews, he said, "This is a joke, a circus. I don't like going on television. In fact I avoid it. You might laugh at that - I'm always on it - but it's not something I look for. I'm just trying to win this campaign for Major." It had been a long day. "For Redwood. For Redwood."

The Australian broadcaster said: "Long-time insiders here describe the atmosphere sorry."

Crossfire

My policy agenda is built on enduring Conservative principles, principles I have believed in and campaigned on all my life.

John Major

My leadership will represent a change of style as well as of substance. I am out to bring some colour back to British Conservatism - a new dash, an excitement, a passion for what we are doing.

John Redwood

Come on you lot, elections are fun, brighten up!

John Major (to reporters)

Tories keep Royal yachts, not scrap them.

John Redwood

I believe my line on Europe - maintaining our national identity but keeping intact the alliance that is so vital for our trade and our security - is shared by the vast majority of people in both Conservative Party and country.

John Major

We live in a United Kingdom. We must do everything to defend it

John Redwood

As the economy grows we will be able to get back to our key Tory objectives - getting taxes down, cutting capital taxes and leaving more choice and freedom for every family.

John Major

The Conservative Party is the party of low taxation or it is nothing. We stormed the country with that message at three general elections and won a fourth term, despite the odds, on the same platform. It is time to deliver.

John Redwood

If you really wish to know, I am rather enjoying myself.

John Major

Woe betide any minister who is caught doing things government should not be doing, or squandering the petty cash.

John Redwood

Comments