Confucius and the art of the press conference

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On the Tube train to Michael Heseltine's election press conference at Tarquin House, I found myself absorbed in a review of a new translation of The Analects of Confucius. This Chinese philosopher - who lived and taught in the fifth century BC - is described as having "established an enduring and decisive link between education and political power" through his helpful and wise thoughts.

How alike then (I thought, as I took my seat in the little theatre) are the ancient Oriental sage and the latter day Hezza. Both sit above the sweat and smell of contingent battles, dispensing useful thought from on high in unemotional tones.

Brian Mawhinney, John Major, Emperor Wu and Fan Chi may feel a terrible sense of urgency, of engagement in the struggle, but Hezza and Confucius do not.

There to speak about falling unemployment, Mr Heseltine ad-libbed desultorily through the Ten Great Faults of Labour, managing to mention eight, and then stopping when he felt like it. As undistracted by what he was saying as he was himself, I took the opportunity to examine him closely. His physiognomy has gone through a strange second adolescence: the nose, the chin, the jaw, the ridge of the forehead, have all asserted their dominance over the mere flesh of the face. Now a man of pure feature, Hezza looks like his own cartoons.

The truest moment came when he was taxed with the desertion of the Tory cause by its erstwhile allies on the Sun. There was a silence, then: "I have thought about this issue." Then a long pause. "And I may return to it". In the Confucius review it said that: "The brevity of many sections of the Analects, when combined with concision, make translation a formidable task". Very true.

Perhaps too, as he and Mr Mawhinney were questioned about the Downey sleaze report (not many journalists seemed that fussed about unemployment), he was reflecting on Confucius's rebuff to a pious administrator that, "among my people a father covers up for his son, a son covers up for his father - and there is integrity in what they do".

Two hours later, Walter Sweeney, doomed Conservative member for the Vale of Glamorgan, was peering myopically at his notes. A large man, whose electoral base is as narrow as his physical base is broad, Mr Sweeney has the smallest majority in the House of Commons. Nineteen votes separate continued life at Westminster from a return to provincial soliciting, and Mr Sweeney knows that just 10 disgruntled electors could propel some snake-hipped New Labourite into the House.

So here he was in front of a whip, a captive Welsh Office minister, five cub scouts and Tam Dalyell's abandoned green cushion, to speak on "Education in the Vale of Glamorgan". And he looked bemused. Not that there is anything new in this condition. Just as there are 30 words for snow in the Inuit language, so there are many shades of Sweeney bemusement - ranging from the merely abstracted, through very puzzled, to the totally out of it. In the past, he has looked equally bemused when rebelling over Europe or supporting a Bill to legalise the shooting of burglars by householders. It may be that he unerringly occupies these positions simply to keep himself bemused.

Or it may be that he wonders how - in an inversion of the usual political logic - it comes about that he and unemployment look set to fall together. Easy, Walter - Confucius he say (Analects12/7): "Without the trust of the people, no government may stand". Ask Hezza. He knows.