Election `97: THE CANDIDATE

by Aanonymous
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The Independent Online
The Candidate stood on the observation platform at the top of the Customs tower overlooking Dover harbour, and waved at the cameramen. Next to him Mrs Candidate leaned against the railing and waved as well. Below him, on one side he looked down upon a long pier, where 60 snappers and piranhas gazed up at him and his wife. On the other side was the English Channel. Nowhere within five miles was there a voter. After three minutes he would gently usher Mrs Candidate back into the building and return to ground level.

You had to do it. If you wanted to lead a nation, do your bit, exercise power over real and tangible things - then you had to accept the absurdities. The Iron Lady herself had once been photographed in her best suit holding a baby calf, yet she had led the country for more than a decade, taken it through a war and fashioned a revolution which still bore her name. The tyrant media needed their snaps and their stories. Without them the promises wouldn't get reported, and no message would get through.

He had once - long before becoming leader himself - complained about it to the Welshman: the ridiculous "photo-opportunities", involving posing with innocent members of the public, the ghoulish appearances at the bedsides of cancer victims and the visits to manure-littered country cattle markets.

The Welshman had sucked at his pipe and quoted an anecdote from the early, precarious days of Bolshevik rule in Russia. A horny-handed veteran of the struggle had been called to see Comrade Lenin in his Kremlin office. "Comrade," said Lenin, "I want you to be our ambassador to France." "But Vladimir Ilich," replied the squeamish veteran, who believed that ambassadors were a bourgeois concept in an era of proletarian internationalism, "surely I will not have to wear a top hat?" "If necessary, should the revolution require it," said his implacable leader, "you will wear two top hats." "Lenin was serious about power," concluded the Welshman. "Are you?"

So he'd steeled himself. The worst bit was all the stuff about body-language. When he should have been thinking about his post-election cabinet, he was forced to worry about hand-shaking techniques. The problem here was twofold. What did you say? And what did you actually do with your hands? He had ended up with "good to see you" as his standby phrase, but found it hard to get any real enthusiasm into his voice. The right arm would be extended, suggesting confidence, and the shake itself would always be firm. The left arm was, he knew, a problem. It would be un-English to deploy it - like Bill Clinton did - to grab the elbow or drape round the shoulder of unknown punters. So it ended up bent and tentative by his jacket pocket, looking as useless as Bob Dole's shattered limb.

But sorry as he felt for his left arm, he felt much sorrier for Mrs Candidate. Increasingly her prominent cheekbones looked like two bruises on her delicate face, and her deep brown eyes seemed alive to the potential for humiliation that existed in so much of what she was forced to do. Yet she had not complained once.

And (when he thought about it) he felt sorrier still for the pensioner whose home would be invaded by piranhas and whose life story would make gossip on the battlebus, simply because she had featured in a five-minute election stop.

It was the way things were. In '92 the Grey Man had raised a scare by making absurd claims about the Welshman's tax plans. How unfair! How untrue! And yet how well it had worked. So this election the compliment had been returned; the Grey Man's "pension plans" were now scaring the daylights out of the electorate.

In another universe, perhaps, there was a planet on which adult discussion was possible. On that Utopia he would have quarrelled with the Grey Man's timing, but agreed with the general thrust of his policy for reforming pensions. And the Grey Man in return would have admitted that the Candidate had transformed his party, but that there were still concerns about devolution.

No, this was no Utopia. So he turned slightly and looked back over Dover beach, where the poet Matthew Arnold had once felt the tide of faith recede.