The lunatic fringe

It's a party conference - but not as you know it. Sholto Byrnes joins the Monster Raving Loonies at their annual policy forum - in a pub in Hampshire
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Indy Politics

"Tomorrow," says Alan "Howling Laud" Hope, "is our cabinet reshuffle. That's when we all get inside a cabinet and then we all get out again with different ministries to shadow. We should have a new cabinet arriving," he adds, "because the last one fell apart."

"Tomorrow," says Alan "Howling Laud" Hope, "is our cabinet reshuffle. That's when we all get inside a cabinet and then we all get out again with different ministries to shadow. We should have a new cabinet arriving," he adds, "because the last one fell apart."

For a candidate who has just come 12th out of 14 in the Hartlepool by-election, Hope seems pretty cheery. But then, the leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party is used to judging success by a rather different yardstick to that employed by what he calls the "unofficial" loony parties - namely, all the rest. "We never come last," he tells me proudly. "Even in Kensington and Chelsea, we got 20 votes."

We're at the bar of the Dog and Partridge - the pub in Yateley, Hampshire, that Hope owns - at the start of the OMRLP annual conference. Apart from the outlandishly-dressed customers and the photos of the party's previous leader, Screaming Lord Sutch, it looks like any other pub where beery carpets and scuffed tables hold out against gentrification and stripped pine.

Attendance is a little sparse: but then, even Lord Sutch often failed to turn up. "RU's coming tomorrow," Hope says (that's RU Seerius, who stood for the Loonies in the Leicester South by-election this year). "So's Mad Cow." Boney Maroney, the party's deputy leader, looks pleased. "Oh, is she? She hasn't gone to America then."

So associated were the Loonies with Lord Sutch that it may come as news to some that, five years after the self-styled third Earl of Harrow committed suicide, the party is still going. The party members decided they must continue his work of wearing odd clothes and losing their deposits in every by-election.

In the leadership election, Hope, who co-founded the party with Sutch in 1979, triumphed over Maroney after another candidate, TC Owen, otherwise known as Bananaman, withdrew. Hope initially shared the leadership with his cat, Mandu, but has manfully shouldered the burden on his own since 2002, when his co-leader expired beneath the wheels of a car.

After suffering a split soon after Sutch's death, when a group formed a breakaway movement called The Rock'n'Roll Loony Party, the Official Loonies now boast a membership of 5,173, each paying £15 a year to "show the world that your marbles are indeed lost!!!" Maroney will stand in Sedgefield against the Prime Minister, and Lord Toby Jug (they all call each other by their Loony names) will contest Michael Howard's seat. They hope to field enough candidates to earn them a party political broadcast. "It'll be the only political broadcast people dash home to watch," Hope says.

Although so far the conference resembles a small get-together in a pub, several key party figures are here. A tall man in a badge-studded tailcoat and cocked hat introduces himself: "I'm Admiral Lord Horatio Hornblower, Minister for Defence. I'm campaigning for the Royal Navy to go back to sail power." Then a shortish man in yellow trousers and an old, quilted dressing-gown approaches. "I'm Baron Harryhog, Minister for Insane Hedgehogs. I've flown in from Jersey." I inspect his badges (most of the Loonies are covered in badges). One says: "Vote Cynthia Payne for Chief Whip"; another reads: "Wanker of the Week".

The youngest-looking Loony joins in. "I'm The Flying Pasty," he says, "shadow minister for accordions and all things squeezy." I compliment him on the lampshade he's wearing. "Thank you," he beams. "I just bought it in the charity shop across the way." Does he have any ideas for the manifesto? "Yes, a new foreign policy for Gibraltar. We should take a great big saw, cut it off and drag it over to the Channel Islands. Then the Spanish wouldn't want it any more."

The Pasty only joined the party three years ago and, unlike the others, does not seem to have entirely expunged the sense of embarrassment that most people would feel if they went around, as the Loonies do, calling themselves silly names like Benson B Fungus-Turret, Professor Minimoo Popplecramp and Sir Wibbly the Wobbly. I enquire how he chose his. "Well, I like pastry, and I like the idea of being able to fly," he explains. "If you had great big flying Cornish pasties, you'd have no carbon emissions and you'd have something to eat when you got there, too."

His cheeks turn the faintest shade of pink as he relates this tale. Perhaps to relieve the tension, he asks me a question. "Will you wear my lampshade? I want to take a photo of you wearing the lampshade." As I haven't brought a hat - a conference rule, contra-vention of which requires the bare-headed to carry an inflatable banana with them at all times - it seems only sensible to agree.

Entirely untroubled by any such discomfiture is The Jersey Flyer, a splendid figure with clipped moustache, harlequin trousers, gold lamé jacket, wing collar and Christmas-themed tie. "The Jersey Flyer - Baron Baskerville, the Dartmoor Loony - at your service," he booms. "I and Baron Paxo" - he points to a grizzled figure at his side - "used to be in the special forces together." Baron Paxo and the Flyer, who claims to be the son of a Second World War Army general, seem to have been availing themselves of the Dog's liquid fare. I note that the Flyer is wearing a badge supporting Cynthia Payne. "Ahhh. Cynthia is a great friend," he says. "I took her to lunch at Kett-ners. We had a maaahvellous afternoon. Took my mother, too. She's 97, you know."

Why did he join the party? "My father spoke fluent Arabic and was sent to the Sudan to raid the Germans behind the lines," he begins. "My mother and father married in Cairo." He leans towards me conspiratorially. "I think that I was the result of a dirty weekend in the pyramids. I was sent to Shrewsbury public school, then joined the Army. And all this made me feel I wanted something totally different. So when I met Alan and his friends..."

He tails off, but later completes the story. It involved him and Baron Paxo embarking on a heroic drinking session while waiting to meet Lord Sutch at Alan Hope's previous establishment in Ashburton, Devon. "We ran out of drink, so we had to go out and get some more. But when we got to the supermarket, I needed to pee desperately. So I found the frozen food section" - the Flyer is already racked with mirth - "and I peed into the frozen peas!" He rocks backwards, mouth ajar. "You should have seen the steam rising - peed in the peas!"

It's clear by this point that no serious business is going to be concluded today, or indeed over the entire weekend. I ask what happens after the manifesto session on Saturday. "Normally," explains Sledgehammer Stan, Ms Maroney's partner and the drummer in Sutch's group, The Savages, "the band would play. Mel [Maroney's real name] comes on as Death and a guillotine chops off the singer's head. But we're down to a three-piece this year."

And what about Sunday, the last day of the conference? "We just sit there in a state of confusion," Maroney says. "Till someone says, 'I've got to go home,'" adds Hope.

But amid all the idiotic policy proposals, such as towing the beef mountain to the South Sandwich Islands (because "they're a natural freezer") or solving the north-south divide by folding a map of the country together, there is some sense in their nonsense. Over the years, Lord Sutch (who first stood for the National Teenage Party in 1963) and his followers were among the first to back policies such as passports for pets, abolition of the 11-plus and all-day pub opening. Other proposals have a poetic justice about them. "Any MP whose constituency sells off a school playing-field to developers will be required to relinquish his/her own back garden as a replacement sports facility for the school." Sounds fair? But the next sentence in the education manifesto reverts to Loony type: "We intend to make free university education available to all students named Grant."

Although the Loonies loathe the Liberal Democrats - "Liberal Democraps, I call them," says Hope: "Lib Dims," agrees Maroney - they bear more than a passing resemblance to the extreme weirdo-beardo tendency of the old, pre-SDP Liberal Party. There's the same talk of local issues, and of how, however trifling these may be, professional politicians cannot be trusted to sort them out without placing party interest above all others. Just like the West Country Liberals, they are suspicious of European Union directives. The tolerance of eccentricity and indulgence in nostalgic humour (they want the national anthem to be replaced by "Do the Funky Gibbon" by the Goodies) is in the same defiantly nonconformist vein. They're not quite as loony, or as purposeless, as one might assume.

Hope, who served as Mayor of Ashburton and is now the Town Crier in Yateley, proudly shows me quite serious letters from students asking about the party. "I give lots of speeches at schools and colleges," he says. "I've spoken at Eton, Oxford, Trinity College, Dublin. We get lots of interest in joining."

He explains who the Loonies are trying to represent. "We're called the Official Monster Raving Loony Party," he says, "but the Monster is nothing to do with Dracula or whatever. It's just 'monster' - the biggest. Because non-voters are the biggest group out there."

Don't other people make fun of them? "We do get quite a lot of discrimination, especially in local elections," Maroney says, "with other parties trying to stop us getting on the ballot. But I give our candidates rules: to act always as Lord Sutch taught us, with respect. No one's allowed to go to the count drunk." "Except Alan," interjects Stan, "because no one can tell the difference."

The Jersey Flyer and Baron Paxo rejoin us. "Would you," says the Flyer, "like a proper drink?" I say I'm fine. "That means yes," says the Flyer. "You need a red devil." After he lists all the ingredients of this fearful-sounding cocktail, Paxo adds: "And milk." The Flyer glowers. "Something about Royal Marines and milk," he says. "Something to do with the cow, and the teat." Later, I overhear him in the loos. "Be careful what you say to this reporter from London," he tells Baron Paxo. "Like to take him out on the piss some time, though."

Before I go, Sledgehammer Stan asks what I'll be writing. "He'll write what he wants," says Maroney, who seems easily the most sensible of the Loonies. They are, I reflect, an amiable bunch, a harmless and quintessentially English adornment to a political system in which three main parties fight over a few inches of the centre ground. I hear the Flyer regaling someone else with the story of his lunch with Cynthia Payne. "Maaahvellous afternoon. Took my mother, too. She's 97, you know...."

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