Ladies who give great ovation

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The Independent Online
Tory ladies give great ovation. So even the most mundane sentiment uttered by the most nondescript speaker will be met by polite, female applause. Should slighting mention be made of Brussels, or Eurocrats, then there is a more enthusiastic dose of clapping.

This is nothing to what happens though when one of the party big-wigs completes an oration. Then - always - the ovation is standing. As a result it is impossible to tell if a speech has been genuinely well received, or merely a ritual appreciation is being recorded. But, dear readers, quite accidentally yesterday, I discovered the Aaronovitch patent ovation- enthusiasm index, and it came about like this.

As the first Secretary of State of the day completed his "we can win, we will win", (I can't remember who it was; after a while it all tends to blend to one interminable piece of nervous triumphalism), the nice elderly lady next to me rose to applaud. The loss of weight on her spring- loaded chair caused it to rise just as she did, trapping her voluminous skirt behind.

As I looked along the lengthy row of seating, stretching right the way across the conference hall, I saw at least five other skirts similarly snagged, five sets of white calves similarly exposed. Being for the most part elderly, and having passed the age for thigh-hugging, slinky numbers, they found their long skirts something of an encumbrance. Intrigued, I kept an eye on the skirts throughout the day. And what I realised was that the more the ladies liked the speech, the more impetuously they rose to their feet, and the more likely the skirts were to become lodged in their chairs. Alors, a foolproof diagnostic tool.

Thus Ian Lang's ponderous announcement of a clampdown on the few remaining rights enjoyed by trade unionists in this country, rated five skirts. Malcolm Rifkind's well-delivered and intellectually shallow speech (on how everyone in the world wishes they were British) did much better, earning over a dozen exposed pairs of ankles. The best, however, was yet to come.

Late in the morning, the small army of grandees and pay-roll functionaries were cleared off the set, and the implausible party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, appeared. John Major, he announced, was going to answer impromptu questions from delegates. And on he came. There, in the speaking circle, was a microphone, a Prime Minister and a Mawhinney. It was a bravura performance. As Mr Major roamed the circle from side to side, fielding a selection of questions (some of them genuinely difficult), Mr Mawhinney circled cautiously behind him, like a lion-tamer in the ring with a usually affable, but eccentric beast.

Then, to enhance the impression of informality, Mr Major took his jacket off, so Mr Mawhinney shed his. But you can never really trust the judgement of the MP from Peterborough; when he began to remove his cufflinks there was an air of apprehension around the hall. What next? Ties? Shoes? Vests? We were spared, of course, though the sight of these two jacketless, middle- aged men roaming a small area, fielding a succession of deliveries, put me in mind of a game of beach volleyball as it would be organised by Mary Whitehouse.

The faithful adored it. When the PM finished they arose. And as they did so, hundreds of yards of fabric became caught throughout the hall. Once again I looked down the row, and counted an astonishing 50 skirts, and a pair of plus-fours, now firmly ensnagged in the seats behind.

Fifty skirts, Prime Minister. They must love you.