Smug speeches, pat sound-bites and a lot of balls

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The Independent Online
Labour did its best for Tony Blair last week, but it still has a lot to learn about stage managing a leader's speech.

John Major, like Blair, is not in the same league of public pleasers as Michael Heseltine; Leyton Orient to his Liverpool. But, to paraphrase Joe Cocker, who has sound-tracked this conference with his dreary Officer and a Gentleman theme, yesterday Mr Major got by with a lot of help from his friends. His pals were out in force in the morning, filling the hall in Blackpool with Union Jacks, long before the Prime Minister had even left his hotel. One man wandered the aisles wrapped in the flag in the manner of a low-rent football yob, seeking out photographers, anxious to get himself in the morning's papers.

Up on the platform, the Cabinet, too, lined up as you would expect: Rifkind, Dorrell and Clarke to the left of where he would stand; Howard, Lilley and Portillo to the right. After 15 minutes of waiting, the video screen above their heads came alive, presenting a package of conference highlights.

Smug speeches, self-righteous delegates, pat sound-bites: no one could accuse Conservative Central Office of presenting an inaccurate summation of the past week. And then Mr Major appeared, with Norma at his side, at the top of a set of Busby Berkeley steps which had replaced the vast proscenium which had been there all week. He waddled down and stood behind a lecturn, as if reading the lesson in his parish church. It was a shrewd move, immediately making him more human, more relaxed, more in touch than the automatons nodding and clapping up on the over-sized set behind him. But not more funny.

As a comedian, John Major is still-born. Merely saying the words "Humphrey the Cat" is not the same as saying something funny about Humphrey the Cat. And as for the passage about Tony Blair having the same name as George Orwell (aka Eric Blair), but not yet changing it like Orwell did, though he has changed everything else; there was only one verdict: balls. Major- Balls, actually. Fortunately, his speech-writing friends didn't linger on the gags. Their theme was substance. "I am sick of policy by sound- bite," Major trilled. Well, I think that's what he said, it was not on the lists of "key quotes for media" handed out by the Conservative briefing unit an hour before the speech.

Also humanity, Major wiping away a tear, as he spoke about how much he loved his old dad, Mr Major-Ball. It was a good speech: not a blood-curdler, but warm, humane and thus a first for the week. It lasted 70 minutes, was interrupted by 74 bursts of applause, and, at the finish he stood surrounded on the steps by the Cabinet; his friends - the Cambridge mafia Shephard, Clarke, Gummer - at the front, Michael Portillo at the back, on the top step. From where, incidentally, everyone got a full view of the great new patriot failing abjectly to join in the singing of "Land Of Hope And Glory".

Then Major plunged into the crowd, to shake hands, accept plaudits and remind Labour of his flesh-pressing strength. Norma went with him and Brian Mawhinney too. As he passed where I was standing, submerged in a sea of flag-wavers, he looked as though he had lost his bearings completely. "Which way now?" he said. "Left, left, left, Prime Minister," ordered Mawhinney, proving, as he did last June when Major was assaulted by malevolent aliens, a friend in need.