Election `97: One last spin precedes a new Messiah

Now that history had ended, and there was no left, the issues were integrity and management: the politics of normalcy

Set the scene in Covent Garden - the great flock of aristos and Tory grandees, stepping out of hearse-like limos and up the stairs into Christopher's Restaurant, where piles of the Daily Telegraph first edition lay in the vestibule, bearing the dread tidings.

It was Barbara Amiel`s election-night bash - her husband owns the Telegraph - and they were all there: the Tory brains trust, their intellectual hitmen and newspaper editors, some of their heaviest backers from the City and scores of hangers-on from high society, almost all dressed in black, like ravens. They all looked curiously dazed, struck dumb by successive hammer blows. The only person who seemed to be enjoying himself was Paul Johnson, stalking around in a state of high dudgeon and thundering out his terrible judgement: "I'll tell you what this is! It's the nation's punishment for getting rid of Thatcher!"

"I can't help wishing we'd lost in 1992," a Tory grandee was saying. "Kinnock would have embarked on some silly socialist experiments and taken the blame for the recession. We would've come back to rescue the nation, clean and fresh and ideologically invigorated, and stayed in power until well into the next century." And now? "This is very bad," he said. "It's going to be very hard to shift them with a majority of this magnitude."

While Tories died on the television monitors, the same "what-ifs" chased the same "if-onlys" around the party. If only the sceptics hadn't stabbed John Major in the back. If only the Tories had been able to keep their pants on, and their hands off sleazy money. A young banker said to me: "We should have gone after the hard men behind Blair, made an issue of their ominous refusal to say anything."

It might please John Prescott to imagine that the blue-bloods present were stricken, but mild concern was more likely, and some serious qualms about the future of hunting. Otherwise, there has been little to frighten the super-rich, not with New Labour having moved so convincingly into the centre - no tumbrils rolling, no angry proletarians at the gates.

As the night wore on, the composition of the crowd began to change as exultant figures of the left and centre came to partake of the excellent champagne, and perchance to gloat. "We have come to see the end of the ancien regime," said Jon Snow, stepping out of a limo with the Labour Peer Lord Hollick. The author Peter Godwin slapped my back and paraphrased Keats, sarcastically: "What bliss it is in this new dawn to be alive, eh?"

"Sod off," I said ungraciously, but he had a point, for this was indeed a defeat for all who shared the Toryish faith in free markets, less government and the total eradication of scientific socialism. I'd even laid a tenner on the Tories to win outright. What can I say? I was wrong. One put one's money where one's mouth was, and one lost it. One slunk off to witness John Major's last exit.

Central Office, 2am. Sophie McEwan was sitting under a staircase in the inner sanctum, drinking plonk out of a plastic cup, shellshocked, intoning: "Not a single one. Not a single one." She was talking about her party's total annihilation in Scotland and Wales, a development she viewed as a tragedy. The demon of tribalism would now be unleashed, she feared: the beginning of the end of Great Britain was at hand. "I just hope they understand what they've done," she said. Alas, poor Sophie, much beloved on the Tory bus for her minimalist, laconic spinning and her heartfelt concern regarding the availability of libations. It was sad to see her on the brink of tears.

"I'll give you the last spin," she said, pouring another. "I think we lost it with the budget of 1991, which was bound to necessitate tax rises, and bound to make us drop out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. I was never entirely sure we'd make it, but I never thought it would be such a landslide. It's just so devastating. None. All gone. Every single one. Every single one ..."

Just then a massed tramping was heard, and a forest of legs appeared above us, scores of disembodied ankles encased in black stockings, marching down the stairs. It was the well-bred girls of Tory Central, coming to say goodbye to their leader. They lined up like schoolgirls, and then John Major appeared, his face grey and grave, finally achieving in defeat the absolute gravitas that had somehow eluded him in power. "We have suffered a great defeat," he said, "but we will come back. We have always come back because there is something in the Conservative philosophy that runs absolutely with the grain of the British nation." And with that, he was gone. The era had ended. A tear or two was wiped away, and we staggered out into the warm blue morning.

On the Tube, a tattered copy of the Sun lay on the empty seat beside me, and I read it. Inside, several fascinating snippets about the new Prime Minister as a teenager. I grew up on the far side of the planet, a year or three behind him, but there was much here that I could relate to, as we used to say: the shoulder-length hair, the cool attitude, the fondness for Led Zeppelin and the odd toke of dope. It seemed strange that someone so much like me should have risen to become the leader of anything, and stranger yet that I should view this development with such indifference and cynicism.

What happened? It had to do with Hayek and Jean Kirkpatrick, I think, and Jean-Francois Revel - all the neo-conservative writers under whose powerful sway I fell in my late twenties. If Mr Blair's middle-class henchmen were champagne socialists, then I was a cocktail party Cold Warrior, hell bent on the total exposure of the Marxist hoax. It was a great game until the Berlin Wall came down, but it has grown somewhat silly of late, all this thumbing one's nose at the left and - yes- heaping scorn on the likes of Mr Blair, whose belated conversion to the centrist cause initially seemed so cravenly opportunistic, a strategy dictated by market research, not conviction.

I took this ideological baggage on the Tory campaign trail. Of course it coloured much of what I wrote, and left me feeling somewhat ridiculous at the end - the ideological obverse of Scargill and Skinner, refusing to accept that the Cold War is really over. And it is. History has ended. There is no left any more, no enemy. The issues that decided this election were integrity and sound management, with some small hope for the less fortunate thrown in; banalities, really; the politics of normalcy.

As I got home, Mr Blair was on the telly, arms raised like a new messiah, promising the adoring masses that this was a victory for reason, not "doctrine and dogma". I had the grace to feel somewhat belittled.

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