Election '97 : THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
It took half a sentence for the Candidate to realise that he didn't know what he was talking about. This didn't alarm him - it was an occupational hazard. The beauty of these Q & A sessions was that the good folk attending them could ask you practically anything. This week he'd been quizzed on "Queer Rights" by a rather toothsome young Brighton lesbian, his views sought on hospices and voluntary euthanasia by an earnest chaplain, and at the morning press conference (formerly devoted to the National Health Service, this being Health Day) Mr Brown had called up the representative of one of the leading Irish newspapers who had asked a long and complex question on the peace process.

No one could know everything - it would be crazy to pretend otherwise. If you'd spent as much time in government as the Grey Man, it was more likely that when you ransacked your mental filing cabinet for a policy or an argument, you'd find one there; often still in the language of the civil servant or private secretary who'd written it. But the leader of the Opposition, who'd spent half-a-decade on party matters, was never likely to be quite so well briefed. Give me time, he thought.

Usually there were perfectly good answers to all the questions, but some just weren't stored. When it was asked you then had a matter of seconds to discover what was available in your head. A 30-second introductory waffle was almost always acceptable to your audience ("I'm glad you asked me that question, Rebecca. Whales are an important part of our natural environment). But if you were to avoid embarrassment, or stumbling, then you'd have to say something.

Of course if the query were familiar, it could trigger the response without any need for thought at all - the mouth simply went on auto-pilot. On such occasions he could actually find himself separated from the speaking politician, his astral projection contemplating matters such as how attractive the young women in the audience were, whether the kids had done their homework, and would Friend Bobby make a decent minister. As his mouth neared the end of the reply, a mental alarm would go off, alerting him that it was time to rejoin his body.

Sometimes, with luck, a quick scan would throw up a full policy. This would be like grasping the frayed end of a piece of string and hauling up a complete line of carnival flags: one tug and the whole lot would follow satisfyingly ("Rebecca, we have committed ourselves to signing the Inter-Oceanic agreement - as our spokesman made clear only last week - which would entail...").

Actually it was more like a good bowel movement.

The next order of difficulty was when you could recall the issue, but had little concrete to say about it. This required a frank sounding admission that not everything could be done at once, but that he was sympathetic and knowledgeable. The thin meat of his specific knowledge of whales was well sandwiched in the thick, spongy bread of his rhetoric about the environment in general.

Worst, though, were those questions which found the cupboard absolutely bare. And he had just been asked one of those by the woman who had shouldered her way through the phalanx of attentive nurses and sympathetic auxiliaries, and delivered herself of an incredibly complex question to do with community care and the demarcation between Health Trusts and Local Authorities. He did not have the foggiest. He knew it; Nipper, Auntie and Queen Mum - all of whom were standing in the audience - knew it, too. But they were powerless to help. Stranded in the middle of this noisy and echoing Victorian lobby, in the heart of the great teaching hospital, surrounded by the snappers, the piranhas and an assortment of staff, he was completely on his own.

"Thank you for that very, er, interesting question," he said, raising a laugh. "The whole issue of community care is extremely important," and then what? We want more of it? Less of it? The old escape route suggesting that dosh would be magicked up was no longer open. For a second he felt sweaty. Then it hit him - if no string was visible for this one, pull the string for a different one. "It's like I said before. We must rebuild the sense of co-operation within the Health Service. Co-operation and not competition should be the foundation of a rebuilt NHS. Local authorities and hospitals must work together..." and so on.

And then, as he often did, he found his answer segueing nicely into the peroration about a better Britain. As he finished, the whole room applauded. But only Nipper, Auntie and Queen Mum understood the true achievement.