Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
D minus four. "Let's turn your man up, shall we?" the urbane gentleman suggested to Whizz. Whizz nodded and at the depression of a button the TV set in the corner - which until now had been pouring its mute pictures into the large breakfast room - suddenly broke into the sounds of animated discussion. The Candidate was having his own early morning meeting - in public - with the media knight.

They listened to a few sorties, in which the Knight gently suggested things to the candidate - some of them argumentative (of the familiar "but you said this" variety), and others more insidious ("let's talk about your new Cabinet") which had drawn from the Candidate an agreement that, yes, Sarky would be Foreign Secretary and Blind Lemon Blunkett would do education.

"He's very good, your chap," Urbane said to Whizz when they decided they'd had enough, and now needed to transact their own business. "Very fluent and determined. I've always been most impressed. In fact the only time he seems at all hesitant is when he's pressed closely on economic questions. Natural enough, I suppose. After all, when his predecessor became PM, he had already been Chief Secretary and Chancellor. You think he'll pick it up?"

Whizz supposed he would. Not that he was wholly the candidate's man. His own first allegiance was to Mr Brown, but Whizz (more than some folk that he could mention) was more interested in the policies than the office politics. The actual exercising of power over the great levers of management: taxation, interest rates and expenditure; the wrestling with the huge questions of the moment: welfare reform, the skills revolution; and the biggest one of them all: should the country join a single currency? These were far more interesting than whether Friend Bobby, Sarky, Deputy John and Mr Brown got on with each other. Though it would, he knew, be in all their interests to let Mr Brown lead. Thus Whizz felt that he was a Sherpa for all of them; one of several who were now reconnoitering the pathways into the mountains.

Which is why he was here, in a sun-lit room overlooking a Blackheath back garden, with a much older man, wearing cardigan and brogues. And in this instance he was not the supplicant. Urbane had arranged this meeting in order to discover what the thirty-year-old and his boss really wanted to do. And then Urbane was going to help them to do it. For that was his job. As the most senior civil servant in the Treasury, it would be he that superintended the 1 July budget, with all its wonderful novelty. Just imagine, a windfall tax!

"You know," said Urbane, "We did actually do a long-term study, and it's possible that you may be able to get a tad more out of the utilities levy than you quite realise. How set are you on the three billion pounds figure? Is it the maximum you need, do you suppose, or would you want to expand the programme should more financing be available?"

Whizz thought about this for a moment. "We'd like to do as much as we can as quickly as possible," he replied levelly, "but politically we don't want to give the companies and the regulators the excuse to demand price rises. So there may be a trade off."

But inside his chest his heart was hammering. For the last four years he and his colleagues had lived and worked in tiny offices, scraping up research effort from sympathetic academics. From that effort they had had to construct a programme and a strategy to bear comparison with that created by a government now in its 18th year. It had been an absurdly unequal contest.

But now that huge machine, running on vast resources, and the brilliant, subtle minds of Britain's best civil servants, would be at their disposal. Any suggestion could be mooted and researched, no matter how outlandish or wasteful of someone's time. "This," thought Whizz, "is blissful."

Urbane showed him out of the large front door, and walked him companionably to his small and rather battered car. As they reached it the elder man smiled and said: "It looks as though we shall meet again soon. Oh, by the way, Rowland sends his best wishes."

Whizz looked at him blankly. "Rowland's my son. You were at college together."