Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

by Aanonymous
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The Independent Online
Sarky sat next to Mrs Candidate for the speech, clapping his small hands from time to time when he thought it appropriate, or when he felt the piranhas were watching. He also felt it would be impolite of him, sitting next to this pleasant, chocolate-clad woman, not to salute what her husband was saying; although, to tell the truth, he didn't feel very much like applauding at all.

Irony had always been one of Sarky's strong suits, his smallest glance freighted with tons of the stuff; hence his nickname. Big Al had coined it after watching the video of Snow White with one of his children - this vision of little bearded men had put him in mind of the party's compact and hirsute foreign affairs chief, and the man's reputation for barbed wit and impatient intelligence had suggested the name. The Prodigies at headquarters (many of them victims of the famous scorn) had taken to it, and everyone now knew him as Sarky. Everyone but himself.

He was certainly intelligent enough to appreciate irony when he was its victim; as he was right now. For the speech that the candidate was delivering to the vast sound-deadening modern auditorium this morning (only in an election campaign could you fill half a concert hall with foreign diplomats and television crews at 10 in the morning) - the speech that he was now politely nodding along to - was an implied reproach to almost everything he had ever thought about international affairs. Or, indeed, about leadership.

Key lines punctuating the speech hit him at regular intervals, like slaps across the back of the head. "We believe in strong defence ... our armed forces are the most admired in Europe ... defence will be built on our national nuclear deterrent ... we strongly support Nato enlargement." And "I am a British patriot, I put my country first."

Surbiton Man needed reassurance, and he was getting it. But, thought Sarky, there was surely a difference between telling readers of the Daily Mail that the country was safe in your hands, and this almost bravura donning of the gaudy armour of the defunct Iron Lady. There was something vaguely masochistic, disturbingly sexual, about this conversion. The candidate was getting pleasure out of it; pleasure that was eluding Sarky. Masochism, even his worst enemies agreed, was not one of his faults.

This odd tone might have something to do, Sarky mused, with the candidate's notion of leadership. His disdain for the Grey Man's weakness was real enough. Sarky had sat next to him during Commons Question Time and had felt his neighbour's body go rigid with contempt. "I don't hate him," the candidate had once said, "I just can't stand watching him squirm. He was given this high office - this immense responsibility - and he fritters it away. Frankly - and I know it's uncharitable to say it - he disgusts me." Even the hilarious campaign adventures of the Bohemian novelist were taken by the candidate's team as being indicative of a lack of Tory moral fibre. There was no "self-control".

Sarky was not so sure. Was not the Grey Man's true problem that he led a party genuinely divided in two about its own future? Could it really be the case that this historic fissure was purely the product of personal weakness, of one man's wimpishness? He thought not.

This concentration on leadership led him back to the key unanswered question. Was the candidate a saviour or a monster? Did he honestly believe (as this speech suggested) that he had single-handedly saved the party with the assistance of Friend Bobby and the support of his children? "I said I would transform the party, and I have." What about those years when the Welshman had toiled away, facing down the Trots, squaring the barons and losing elections? "Every objective I set in creating a new party, I have achieved." What, alone? A biblical prophet come to judgement?

Was this simply a piece of necessary election hyperbole, designed to contrast the unknown record of the candidate with the all-too-familiar one of the Grey Man - or did he and the retinue actually believe it all?

Sarky was no saint. He desired power as much as anyone else, and thought that he deserved to exercise a nice big chunk of it. He was not Ego's enemy. But he did not imagine that serving in the Iron Lady's cabinet had been much fun; and even now he had no idea what to expect. Was the boss committed to open government, consultation, co-operation and radical policies? Would he quickly despatch Friend Bobby to a ministerial nunnery? Or was he a charming and dangerous megalomaniac, who would reward his courtiers?

Sarky turned to Mrs Candidate and smiled. "Interesting speech," he said.