Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
Fatherhood was the first big one and this is the second. I mean, once upon a time you could not imagine what it would be like to be your own dad. And then you were a dad, and had to be patient with the kids and choose their schools and wipe their bottoms. Ready or not, you had arrived.

So now, it seems, this fellow your own age (you might have gone out with the same girls, wet your loons at the same Monty Python sketches, both - arms linked - have shouted "The National Front is a Nazi Front" as the Union Jacks paraded past), this fellow, is going to be Prime Minister. Prime Minister. Will run the country, save it from wars, broker peace deals (the way they do), make speeches at the Mansion House and so on. So it could have been you. And how would you be feeling right now if it was?

That's what I was thinking as I watched the candidate standing in the glass-ceilinged corridor, waiting his cue to enter the large, packed, critical room. I was empathising with him. And he was moving gently from foot to foot, in soft jerks, every now and again looking up suddenly and surveying the glass ceiling - as though inspecting it for cracks. He is - I realised - a creature of disguised angularity, his physical fluency diminishing the nearer you get. From far away he sweeps; from close-up he jigs.

Semi-consciously he was making his serious faces. Everyone knows his grin; too lovely, too open, for a cynical age. So he was practising the grimace of determined leadership, furrowing his brow, pursing his lips (or even bending his lower lip over altogether), so pushing his jaw out. Benito Mussolini, I recalled, did this too. But where Musso's eyes were cold, these were kind enough - a black, deep line developing in the corner of each, like an Egyptian kohl stroke.

The suit on his long body was, as ever, dark, and the cotton shirt was impossibly white. Shirts, I thought, are only ever that white when you first unwrap them from the plastic, removing the cardboard and pins. So all his white shirts must be virgin; worn for the first time that day. His appearance was immaculate - right down to the one mousy curl, escaping authentically onto his forehead, as if to say "I'm real!" Really, the whole concept was immaculate.

When, after a minute or two, the socialist millionaire with the clipped beard had finished telling the audience about how Keir Hardie had invented the market, the candidate breathed out, and set off down the aisle. As he walked quickly to the front, television lights picked him up, dusting his hair with white light and flattening out the new lines in his face. What was he thinking (I thought)? That he loved doing this? That he hated doing this? That he would endure doing this because he had to?

His voice, when he began to speak, was still that of a very young man - almost an adolescent's. Thin and high, it hinted at the possibility of a sudden undermining squeak or embarrassing giggle. And he sounded slightly nervous, but was he?

Perhaps he was and he genuinely could not help it. Perhaps he wasn't, but thought it was rather cute - humble - to sound as though he was. And, most likely of all, perhaps he was, thought about faking it, and realised that they all really wanted him to to be. No one - least of all the British - likes a smartarse.

"Only connect", said EM Forster. Is that why the candidate peppered his speech, entitled "A Strong Economy" with unscripted conversational you's and I's? "You know", "so the essence, if you like", "I mean", "you see", "I suppose", and - most characteristic, most vicarly, most connecting - "I say to you" (always allowing the audience the democratic possibility of "and you say to me").

And he said to us that new forces had been unleashed, new technology was to be harnessed, new market economies were emerging: the new global economy had to be accepted and - indeed - embraced.

Then he had finished. His aides formed a line to show him first to a side-room, and then it was out and on to the next appointment. I wondered what you might take him to be if you had never seen or heard of him before. A charismatic young surg- eon, perhaps, a knighted pediatrician - tough but tender and with strong hands that heal.

In three weeks time his journey will finish. It could end in historic defeat, or else in a night of exhausted celebration - followed by the cold dawn's stabbing revelation that the candidate was no longer the candidate, but was now the Prime Minister. Wanting to find out which, I bought a ticket for the bus.