Election '97: The candidate

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The Independent Online
They weren't exactly gloomy in the back of the red Jag, but they weren't ecstatic either.

"Authenticity, authenticity, toujours authenticity," said Big Al. "They think we're too packaged, too afraid, too delicate to take risks," he broke off. "Where are we now?" He scratched his long nose and squinted at the big, blue road sign ahead. "Milton Keynes 14 miles. What a way to spend Sunday," he sighed. "So we have to look as though we're up for it, as if we have balls of steel and eat whole oxen raw for breakfast. As if they're seeing right through to the passionate, truthful kid inside."

In the front seat the woman they call the Queen Mum nodded. The Queen Mum had known the Candidate since she was a 15-year-old rebellious schoolgirl. Now she had turned 40, but in the quarter-century since they first met at college she had never really had any doubts about him. It was an enthusiasm that she shared with the other mums - all mature women with kids - who organised the Candidate's campaign. In any shot of the Candidate working a crowd, the Queen Mum would be there shepherding him through it all - the short jacket showing off her unmatron-like figure, her blonde hair framing a wide mouth and a large, determined jaw.

"It's just a matter of letting them feel they've encountered the real thing," she said reassuringly. "It's our fault really. We've been so anxious that it should go smoothly and that the hacks get their snaps and shots, and that we should stay on message, we've made it all seem a bit unspontaneous, and that's rubbed off a tiny bit on you." She looked at the Candidate nervously.

He smiled ruefully. "You know," he said, patting the Sunday newspaper on the seat beside him. "They hate me, you know, they hate me. They really do - the people who ought to be on our side. Look at this." He picks the paper up. "They got together a professor, a solicitor, a barrister, a charity man, a head teacher, you know like that Dinner Party programme - except in Islington. And what do they all agree about, over the Rioja and tuna? They hate me!"

Big Al growled. "What do you expect? You remind them that they've been wrong most of their adult lives, and they don't like it. They've spent years telling their mates that, of course, the voters would pay extra taxes for better services, that crime was all about poverty, etcetera. Now you come along and say 'We don't have to do it that way', and they cannot bear it. They'd rather be out of power, able to wear some poxy little badge saying 'don't blame me, I voted Labour'. It's the way they've lived for 20 years."

"Al's quite right," Queen Mum broke in. "Down in my bit of Sussex you won't hear much whingeing about betrayal, unless it's the Grey Man they're talking about. Changing the subject, can we talk about this poster launch, for a moment? We get to MK, and there's a little clearing just outside the National Hockey Centre. Pascal has organised for the five ad lorries to be in a semi-circle. When you come to each of the Five Pledges in your speech, someone representing the Pledge in question will unveil the relevant poster."

"I have a terrible feeling I know what's coming next," said the Candidate, resignedly. "First we'll do the tax pledge and two perfect MK families - mum, dad and two kids - will pull the cords, and the lorry will probably keel over. Correct?"

"Except for the lorry, yes. Unless there's a high wind."

"Then class sizes and seven photogenic kiddies will reveal that one - right?

"Right."

"Health service - three uniformed nurses, an orderly, a physician complete with stethoscope and a warm-looking GP?"

"No stethoscope."

"Jobs for young people; that's easy. Two suitable teenaged job-seekers. Hold on, though," he frowned, narrowing his eyes. "What about juvenile crime? Two young muggers with Mohicans and nose rings who want to be jailed quickly? A pair of prison officers?"

"Six pensioners," said Al. "The kind of people who most feel juvenile crime. One has two walking sticks, and the biddies look great apparently."

The Candidate sighed. But Al went on, "There's more. Right at the end, when you're getting to your rousing climax, they'll all come forward and surround you on the podium. It'll make a terrific picture."

"Very authentic," said the Candidate. "Now do I go with my jacket on, or is it shirt sleeves again?"

"Shirt sleeves," said Big Al and the Queen Mum together.

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