Election '97 : THE CANDIDATE

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It was 7.30am. Last night the BT engineer had patched a conference line into the large suite of the south coast hotel. So now the Candidate and Big Al waited for the call from headquarters. Through the hall leading to the suite's living room (virtually indistinguishable from her own at home), Mrs Candidate could be heard talking gently on another line to each of her children in turn. Back in the bedroom, newspapers lay scattered on the bed, the floor and most of the chairs; the headlines all agreeing that the Grey Man was in deep and terrible trouble.

The electronic box on the coffee table coughed. Big Al lent forward, pressed a button and said, "Okay, we're on", into it. "Good morning!" said friend Bobby from 60 miles away, his soft voice sounding like damp sand slipping down a children's slide, "and what a lovely morning it is!"

Al smiled at the Candidate. The press stories of Bobby and the bull dog, plus the accompanying photographs of the spare, sharp-suited strategist rolling on the floor with a baggy pooch, had been camp classics. Last night they had been speculating that Bobby might hang on to the animal beyond the election, and come to the dispatch box with it in tow - company for Blind Lemon Blunkett's guide dog.

"Morning, Bobby!" replied the Candidate grinning. "Is Mr Brown with you?" "Yes, I'm here," came a Scot's accented basso profundo - a voice of rich (if gloomy) colour. "We live in interesting times."

The Candidate went on, "Al is sure that we should feed some comment on the Grey Man's predicament into this morning's speech." There were disembodied noises of assent down the line from London: one gruff, the other sibilant. "I just thought we should talk through our responses."

"The main thing is that we let them stew as much as possible in their own juices," said Bobby smoothly. "We just get on erecting our seven pillars and whatever - and keep to our splendid plan. When asked we sigh, and make clear how pathetic they are, how totally unfitted to govern etc. As far as I can see the big casualty in all this is their negative campaign: it's much harder for them to suggest what a dangerous bunch we are when they are squabbling like this. The only peril we have to be on guard for is that they might push it so far, that they actually come out the other side a genuinely anti-Europe party. That could - as we've always known - be a problem for us. As we also know, that depends on whether Blokely goes quietly, or decides - as the most successful Tory chancellor in history - to make a fuss.

"Right," said the Candidate. "What differentiates us from them is that they're a rabble led by a weed, and we're a purposive party led by ..." he paused, smiling, "... me. We're just as patriotic as them, but we're in the best position to defend British interests, because we're united."

Someone groaned a small, barely audible groan. It was Mr Brown. There followed a short silence which he then broke, his voice hitting such low registers that his listeners strained to catch his words. "I just want to express a worry. Whenever we get a row like this inside the other party, the European argument goes by default."

He warned to his theme. "All you then hear is the sound of politicians falling over one another to tell the country how anti-Europe they are. And we, of course, have to respond. Look what's already happened. In a few months we've moved from being in principle in favour of monetary union; then in favour, but with a referendum; then doubtful about the first wave; then doubtful in the lifetime of the next parliament. But if the bloody thing happens - and I still think it will - are we are going to have painted ourselves so far into a corner that we can't join even if we want to?"

The Candidate sighed. The truth was that no one could see into the future. But unlike Mr Brown he could envisage life outside a single currency, if that was what the British people - his people - really wanted. Their attitudes were also a reality; in political terms they were concrete.

"Good point," he replied. "If it's in Britain's interests we will go for it. That's the test, rather than something abstract. Britain's interests!"

"And where would that have left us in 1938?" muttered Mr Brown. But by that time the line had gone dead.