Election '97: THE CANDIDATE

Click to follow
I was looking straight at the Candidate when he first thought that he might be about to die. For one second, as the figure approached him, I saw his grin become a stupid smile of fear and apprehension. It happened like this. We were all of us - press, Candidate, minders and Deputy John - inside one of those civic theatres that most towns of over 50,000 have somewhere in their centres. This one was in an Essex new town, but despite being only a few years old, was - like most things civic or municipal - looking a bit sad. You know, the loos weren't quite clean, the white doors were covered in grubby fingerprints, and bits like the nibbles of large mice, had been chipped off any jutting surface by the passage of furniture, wheelchairs and time.

The Candidate was there to do a Q&A with 300 switchers. But where do you get switchers at 11am on a Tuesday morning? Especially when you can only give them 10 hours' notice. Do you accost them in the street and say, "Be a devil. Take this morning off work and listen to the Candidate. Phone in sick, whatever"? Not in Britain. So the grubby theatre's stalls and three balconies were filled - not with switchers - but with the switched. Particularly with the elderly switched.

Perhaps it was the white hair, wind-cheaters and walking sticks that made the Candidate feel more than usually mortal, as he and Deputy John took their places on the low platform in the centre of the auditorium. He may well still have been feeling the bruises from the previous night's TV encounter with the Big Cheese BBC Interviewer. Certainly he realised (despite the encouraging noises from his loyal staff) that the first 10 minutes had seen him look flustered and defensive before the patronising, hectoring onslaught of the smooth man with half- glasses. The Big Cheese clearly felt that 43 was far too young an age at which to be Prime Minister. After all, he had smaller brothers - Little Cheeses - older than that. It had taken the Candidate half a prime-time show to get back on terms.

And perhaps it was also the presence of Deputy John on the platform; a fleshly reminder of the limitations of a leader's political power. One disgruntled outburst from this peculiar figure - this squat portion of sweet and sour politics - and it could all still be over, no matter what the polls and the experts said. Right now, with another delicate tack to the right just in the process of being made, he needed Deputy John kept onside. So there he was.

The local hopeful - black skirt and jacket and shoulder length red hair - told the gathering that the two men were there, and they strolled on. To be met by a nice clap, a good shout and a three-quarters standing (or at least, struggling upright) ovation. Smiling, the Candidate stood at the microphone and raised his arms for quiet. The applause stopped and everybody subsided once more into their seats.

No. Not everybody. For as he began to speak, a weird figure arose stiffly from its chair two rows back, and shuffled purposefully towards him, holding something in her outstretched hands.

She certainly seemed to be a harmless woman; a tall old girl in an antique puce dress with lacy facings, her iron-grey hair in a long, unfashionable, page-boy cut. No-one in the audience seemed at all concerned, but he knew that this was an unscheduled old woman; there was no piece of paper on which it was written that Lottie Lebur or Sylvia Socrates would present flowers at 11.06am.

In the awful slow motion seconds that it took before the figure came within striking distance of him, a host of images and warnings went through his mind: the secret service chaps who'd briefed him on the dangers of being a Prime Minister in all but name, the detective assigned to him who had told him what to look out for, the images of the young Kennedy brothers grinning their last, of Norman Bates at the motel done up like his old ma. He pictured the knife clutched stiffly through the surrounding carnations; the page-boy wig falling away to reveal the contorted features of the sated madman. Above all he felt the horrid realisation that he would have to put up with being stabbed if necessary, because the alternatives - wrestling a genuine old lady to the ground, or running away - were disastrous.

And so he grinned madly at her, held his arm out for the flowers, and breathed heavily when a bunch of harmless pinks was pressed into his sweating hand.