Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

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The Independent Online
It was Nipper's day out. He'd done an eight-day stint in headquarters, picking up on enemy releases and rebutting them, so that his large ears were beetroot red from the telephone. You could get sick of calling up overpaid, lazy hacks (many of them viscerally hostile in the first place), and trying to convince them that privatisation was not an issue, but that education was. So today, for a treat, he would be back with the Candidate's tour.

Nipper could still get exasperated with the piranhas because they patronised him for his youth. He was young, true: one of the first of the so-called Infant Prodigies, who now cropped up in all areas of the party apparatus. Prodigies gophered for Friend Bobby in HQ, researched endogenous growth theory for Mr Brown and directed policy for the Candidate himself. Wherever you looked, prodigies ran things. Nipper worked on the press side with Big Al. Al did the important briefings and some of the biggest one-to- ones. The rest Nipper nipped in and did. And at first it had been very hard, not being Al.

They were very different. No one could call Al - an old hack himself - an intellectual without running the risk of being hit. Nipper was a Balliol First in politics, philosophy and economics - all brain - and had spent the early part of his short career barely suppressing his contempt for the stupidity of the lobby correspondents. This was not, he had learned, something that they had responded to well.

The struggle had been short and he had adjusted. Now his ginger hair, long sideburns and rodentine features no longer caused a groan of dislike to emerge from whichever Westminster press office he entered. The piranhas knew that this was his master's voice, unvarnished and straightforward. They could listen or not. He for his part still disliked them.

Standing at the back of the morning press conference, before the buses started for the south coast, Nipper watched the Candidate along with Mr Brown and the man they called Blind Lemon Blunkett (because of the way he sang political soul) file into the packed room. Two weeks ago when all this had started, the Candidate had been very nervous. He had sweated a lot, fluffed his lines, his antennae failing to distinguish between the question that needed a joke, and the one that required a retort.

A fortnight on, and all that had gone. It always took him a week or so, thought Nipper. A week's experience of being in a rock band, acting on stage, being an MP, leading a party or fighting a campaign - and then he would be good at it. He only ever got shit on his shoes once; after that he knew where to walk. Tanned and youthful, the seasoned campaigner sat there joking, his arm round Blind Lemon's shoulders as they shared some comradely joke.

Mr Brown, though, did not seem quite so happy. He was pale and edgy beneath his dark hair, looking round the room nervously to try to gauge the mood in the tank. Were they hungry? And if so, who would they eat? And there was something more. Nipper's analysis was that the happier the Candidate, the more difficult it was to be Mr Brown, who might so easily have been leader himself. As his boss skipped through the questions, answering some, giving acceptable evasions to others, Mr Brown's lips moved almost imperceptibly, his body shifting in its seat, as he mentally supplied the great replies that he was never going to give. He's a big beast, thought Nipper, and not easily tamed.

Nipper did not get on to the Candidate's bus at first, but sat with the hack pack, dabbling his toes in the warm little pool of gossip that they created everywhere they went. The Grey Man had said this, Dr Mawhinger had said that, ol' Wild Eyes had been let loose on a pavement full of brother journalists and said the other; all communicated instantly by mobile phone and were supplemented by the mobile phones of others.

In Sussex's Newtown the pensioners gave the Candidate a good clap and pronounced him a nice boy. Even the Socialist Worker seller standing next to him smiled in the sunshine and muttered a friendly "piss off" into his beard. An hour later a demonstration at the university consisted of a pretty purple and sky blue banner and two placards politely requesting that respect be shown to wildlife. Nipper was on hand when one of the protesters singled out a camera crew. "Hey!" said the boy, "need any presenters? I'd be dead good." Nipper smiled. His view entirely.