"Conservative women want and deserve to be taken seriously," she went on, "not just regarded as useful at election time and helpful in the village hall kitchens."
There was a purr of agreement from the massed ranks of ladies attending the 66th National Conservative Women's Conference in Westminster on Thursday afternoon. They do indeed want to be taken seriously. And who can blame them? Here they were, these elderly matrons (I'd estimate the average age of those attending to be somewhere around 93) who for decades have slaved over their sandwiches and fairy cakes, and all for what? For the men to go and bugger it all up with their silly squabbles and sordid sleaze.
Clearly what the party needs is more women MPs (there are only 14 at the moment), but the question is how they go about getting them, especially when young women tend to see the party as "out-of-date, fuddy-duddy and male-dominated", as one delegate put it. Mrs Buscombe proposed actively headhunting dynamic young women all over the country, but there was a certain amount of suspicion from the sandwich-makers in the audience about this. When a speaker from the floor suggested that the party needed "down- to-earth, practical women", not just high-flyers, her words were greeted with a hearty round of applause.
The response of the out-of-date, fuddy-duddy and male-dominated hierarchy of the Conservative Party to the problem is outlined in Blueprint for Change, a discussion document aimed at revamping the party into a funky, streamlined, New Conservative kind of electable institution. Their suggestion is that when potential candidates are interviewed, at least 25 per cent should be female. But the ladies are in general not in favour of this idea. It soon became clear at the conference that the best way to raise a cheer was to announce you were opposed to positive discrimination. Conservative women don't want special treatment, they just want "a level playing field".
Archie Norman, the smooth and fresh-faced Conservative Party Vice Chairman with Responsibility for Nothing in Particular, had been drafted in to answer the women's points. "I think it's terribly easy to be negative about things," he said at one point in the face of this mass dissension, but of course he promised the women's views would be taken into account when the blokes all got together at a later date and decided what to do with the party. "And I'd just like to take up the issue of fairy cakes," he said, possibly for the very first and probably the very last time in his career. "Peta, I'll pitch my cake against yours any day." Despite the fact that Mr Norman once worked for Asda, it has to be said that his attempt to identify with the rank and file had a hollow ring to it.
Back on the floor, one delegate had some words of advice for prospective Conservative candidates in the audience. "Please don't play the sex card," she advises. "I've had one lady who lifted her skirt to show us her knees and she alienated both the men and the women on the selection committee."
At the end of the day, Central Office played its very own sex card when Cecil Parkinson arrived to make the closing speech. He didn't display his knees, but he offered honeyed words to the dissatisfied Tory ladies. "The role women have played in our party has been vital to our past success and will be absolutely crucial to our revival in the future," he smarmed. "We are determined to see more women in every part of the party. " When he finished, his words were greeted with roughly 10 seconds of applause, which in Tory terms can be considered little more than a ripple. If Cecil and his chums aren't careful, they could be finding arsenic in their fairy cakes in the very near future.
The TV channel known as God
Journalists get invited to a lot of things, but it's not often they're invited to breakfast with God. That's what it says on the invitation to a press conference tomorrow morning organised by The Christian Channel, which has been broadcasting on satellite and cable for the last couple of years between the hours of 4am and 7am. It's the brainchild of a South African husband and wife team, Rory and Wendy Alec, who arrived in this country six years ago having apparently heard the call from God that Britain was crying out for a channel devoted to Himself. The mix of wholesome children's programmes, church services, drama productions and a studio- based show is currently available to around 7 million homes, and while there are no official figures for how many people actually watch the channel, their PR man, Paul Cunningham, estimates they have around half a million viewers. And he's anticipating that this figure will rise significantly from next month when, as will be officially announced tomorrow, the Christian Channel moves from its current somewhat ungodly hour and starts broadcasting in direct competition with mainstream breakfast television. Henceforth it will be known as God: The Christian Channel and, as Mr Cunningham puts it, "the branding will be God". Apparently there are other surprises in store tomorrow, but the PR man was keeping his cards close to his chest. "There'll be some very interesting news," he said. I can barely contain myself.
Dennis is reduced to a peashooter
"HALF Man, Half Botham", "Science Fiction Is Cack: Official", "Oi! Your Mum's Got A Beard", "Making A Testicle Of Oneself". These are just a few of the categories of questions in the new computer quiz game, You Don't Know Jack. As may already be apparent, we're not talking Trivial Pursuit here, but we're definitely talking Big Fun. I hereby highly recommend it if you fancy a bit of a laugh over Christmas.
What really brings the game to life is its host, a monstrous compere from Hell by the name of Jack Cake. He's the invention of Paul Kaye, better known for his brief but glorious career as Dennis Pennis, who stalked celebrity gatherings and was responsible for some of the best put-downs ever seen on TV. "It just felt like all the fun had gone out of it," Kaye says, talking about his decision to kill off Pennis. "Towards the end I couldn't get near anyone, so I used to go along with a peashooter and that's how I passed my time. I got Tony Curtis's girlfriend in the neck, but it didn't really translate to TV." Asked to recall his finest Pennis moment, he cites an incident at Cannes this year that didn't make it on to the screen. As Bruce Willis and his wife walked past, he got someone to ask the time. "I said, 'Oh, it's wank heures et demi,'" says Kaye. "I was very proud of that one."
The last word in very bad timing
IMAGINE this. Some years ago you compiled a book, which was a collection of famous people's last words. Then last year a publisher suggested to you that maybe you could tart it up a bit and add four or five hundred new entries, then it could be republished in time for this Christmas. So you do all the work and the book is printed. It's a Friday and the publishers have packed up all the review copies to send to the press. Unfortunately they just miss the post but it's not a serious problem because they can go out on Monday. And then what happens? Princess Diana is killed in a car crash over the weekend and suddenly a book called Famous Last Words is perhaps no longer the hot publishing property it once appeared. "We felt it was absolutely not the right time to send them out," says Kyle Cathie, who's the publisher in question. "We had to hang onto them for three weeks, so it means that pretty much no one has written about the book at all." Indeed to date, the Guardian is the only publication to have reviewed the book, while author Jonathon Green's publicity campaign has so far amounted to interviews with Radio Devon and Radio Austria. Green is particularly peeved since he had to go to great lengths to come up with his new entries. "Not enough people leave last words these days," he says. "There are all these deaths in hospitals and nobody's there with a notebook. Bring back public hangings, that's what I say." There are now plans to relaunch the book in February.
Pushing a mouse, instead of a trolley
I DIDN'T know what to do with myself. I'd finished the computer game I'd been playing for the past few weeks. Michael Cole had stopped writing to my editor complaining about me. There was nothing to look forward to any more. And then a letter dropped onto the doormat. "Dear Mr Hulse," it said. "If you had the choice of staying in the warm while someone else shops for you or doing it yourself, what would you do?" I know very well what I'd do. I'd send them off to the shops and tell them to be back sharpish and no mistake. The letter was from Tesco Direct and was accompanied by a little brochure explaining all about their Grocery Home Shopping Service. So I rang them up and spoke to the very nice Scottish man and he's going to send me a copy of their catalogue on CD-Rom. (Le Tesco, c'est tres moderne, n'est-ce pas?) I can hardly wait to get started. Just think of all the idle hours I can spend browsing through the full range of Tesco products and trying to decide whether it's the beef-and-tomato Pot Noodle I want or the chicken-and-mushroom one. Boredom could well be a thing of the past.
Picture: An Austin 10 car, EYH 409. 1. The royal mint has announced that a pounds 5 coin will be issued to mark the millennium, and a 50p coin for next year's 50th anniversary of the NHS. 2. Sir Denis Rooke (former head of British gas), Sir Norman Foster (architect) and Lord Denning (former Master of the Rolls) have been elevated to fill the three vacant places in the 24-strong Order of Merit. 3. A trial had to be adjourned when lawyers were unable to attend after eating the suspected dish for lunch. 4. The Ford Escort. 5. The Reading Room of the new British Library. 6. Astronauts Winston Scott and Takai Doi grabbed the Spartan 201 satellite which had been spinning out of control. 7. The film Alien Resurrection has opened, starring Sigourney Weaver, supposedly cloned after she had been killed at the end of Alien3. 8. George Best has launched his own wine label, with his name and face on four bottles of Italian wine. 9. The new Royal Opera production of Rossini's Barber of Seville opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre to boos and cries of "rubbish". 10. The jacket of a Butlin's redcoat. 11. Cheat at exams. 12. Lowry's "The Regatta" sold for that sum at Sotheby's.