Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
So we stood in the shade of the white cherry blossom tree and our minders told us that there had been a slight delay. Three hours of travelling, not a sight of the Candidate (though his disembodied voice reached us as it took part in a radio interview). And now, sheltered from the blazing sunshine, here we were - waiting. As the occasional pristine petal drifted softly on to my head and shoulders, my mind shifted to a room or bus somewhere, in which two key advisers and the Candidate himself were meeting. I don't know the place myself. When - one day - the history of this campaign is written, we will discover exactly how this meeting took place, who was there and what was said. But - details aside - this is what happened.

Adviser A had his large, handsome head in his hands, his posture completely at odds with the garishness of his shirt, the yellow and red optimism of his tie, and the shiny brown brogues on his large feet.

"I do not," he said, "believe this is happening. Air Traffic Controlgate for Christ's sake!"

The Candidate winced at the obscenity, sucked in and then blew out his cheeks, checked the retort that was on his lips and glanced up. "Look," he said. "It's not ideal. But we need to concentrate on what happens now. I mean, what's the damage? Bobby?"

He turned to the sharp-featured man who had been studying him intensely throughout.

Adviser B cleared his throat and very precisely uncrossed his legs, resting his hands on his two thighs. "This problem," he enunciated carefully, "has its origins in the collision of two competing desires. The first was Andrew's wish to make a speech to the last conference showing that he would keep alive some small part of the flame of radicalism brandished by his predecessor, Clare.

"At that time there was no reason to believe that the issue of privatisation arose, so the speech was cleared - by Gordon's office. No, let me finish, Al. If we don't understand what has transpired we will make the wrong decision about how to handle it.

"The second desire," he continued, "was to be able to sign up to Cuddly Ken's spending plans as a token of our rectitude, forswearing any increases in taxation levels beyond those that he had already set in train. Alas, the fat chap had littered the darker, more obscure corridors of his plans with hidden booby-traps. They assumed him doing lots of things that he never bothered mentioning to the British people and - indeed - to his colleagues. Like privatising Air Traffic Control.

"Yes, yes," broke in the big man, impatiently. "So we get jumped on because of Ken's gap! It's incredible!"

Bobby smiled a thin little smile. "This is a tough business. No one believes that they're going to be re-elected, so no one is interested in Ken's plans. We get it in the neck just because we are so far ahead. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. So when Ken is found out - or rather, conveniently finds himself out - it leaves us with a hole in the spending plans.

"Now, we could have said: 'Shit! That means a tax increase, but blame the Tories'. Just imagine what they would have made of that. Or we could have told the truth and said: 'What's a billion between friends? We'll get it out of contingency.' But that would have done sod all for our fiscal prudence stance. So we opted for 'OK, let's privatise it, if necessary' approach. On the upside this still means we look lean and mean ...

"And on the downside it makes us look like unprincipled ditherers," Al broke in, "who say that we will never, ever, tolerate a thing one month, and then say it's quite conceivable the next. As a result it all unravels, dominates the news for a whole week, and reinforces the impression that we do not care very much what we say as long as we win. And all when the polls show the gap is closing."

The Candidate sighed. "Look, it's done now, for good or ill. You tried your hardest. The thing is, how do we deal with it now?"

Bobby got up, went over to the window and turned to face the room. "It feels uncomfortable, I know. It makes some of our friends in the broadsheet press rather nervous. But how does it play in the tabloids?

"Is Worcester Woman talking to Peterborough Person about it in the pubs? I think not. Courage mon amis. The smallest polling gap is 14 per cent. So hold the line and win the prize."