Modesty prevents me revealing the identity of the scorer, but it was a dipping, swirling shot from at least 30, no, 45 yards

Jim White ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
For a party which boasts Sebastian Coe among its MPs, there was surprisingly little interest taken in sport at the Conservative Party Conference. There were no fringe meetings on the subject (unless you count The British Association for Shooting and Conservation's effort titled "Sporting Shooting's Contribution to the Countryside"); no amusing allusions to Eric Cantona in speeches; no suggestion in the law and order debate that Duncan Ferguson, after being locked up, should have the key of his cell flung into the Clyde. Over a whole week only one sporting gag emerged: a Scottish unionist delegate calling Alan Howarth, the recent defector to Labour, "the Mo Johnston of politics."

But then sport and the average Tory delegate don't appear to be on nodding terms. Not that the representatives at the Labour Party conference were exactly slim, trim paragons of fitness. But these Tory activists, particularly the younger ones, were bursting out of their pin-striped suits all over Blackpool. The party is a walking (or rather taxi-hailing) vindication of that recent report which suggested the entire country was heading for collective obesity; no wonder Virginia Bottomley is the most unpopular minister here: she was the one who, as Health Secretary, told everyone we ought to exercise more often. You could tell how unfit our rulers are when the finest XI the party could muster challenged the journalists of the parliamentary lobby to a football match. It seemed a wise choice of opponents: hours spent in the press bar at the House of Commons and a diet entirely based on Marlboro is hardly the preparation conducive to athleticism. And they were confident too, boasting in the hotel the night before the game about the size of their impending majority. The game took place at Bloomfield Road, home of Blackpool FC. This is the place where Owen Oyston, Blackpool's owner, plans to build a super stadium, complete with sliding roof, massive hotel and indoor arena attached. But for now, the ground remains as it was in the 1950s, the Tower peeping over the top of the vertiginous terrace banking up one end. The goalkeepers spent almost as much time on this terrace as on the pitch, making frequent trips to retrieve the ball. They had to get the ball themselves because, where once the hordes tumbled in celebration of Matthews and Mortensen, for this clash of the titans the terrace was completely empty. Not that it is that full when Blackpool play these days. A sign prominently positioned up there displayed one of the great euphemisms of modern football: "Capacity reduced for safety reasons."

Thanks to the splendid hospitality of the club, the journalists' team slipped on the famous tangerine shirts. The Tories wore an old Wimbledon strip. It was prophetic. Within five minutes, a long-range shot from the man at the Sun hit the back of a Tory defender and arced into the net ("Another Tory own goal," someone shouted). Then he hit a second, and when a third went in soon afterwards (modesty prevents me revealing the identity of the scorer, but it was a dipping, swirling, Jamie Redknapp of a shot from at least 30 - no, 45 yards) among the Tories there was an outbreak of the sort of vigorous and healthy debate you expect from a party which is such a broad church. They fell upon each other, yelling about missed chances, upbraiding each other for failing to tackle flying left wingers. One player called another "a whingeing Scouse git" (the git in question was Angela Rumbold's constituency agent).

There wasn't a leadership election at half-time as everyone traipsed to the dressing-room for beakers of lukewarm, sweet tea (Gatorade hasn't percolated down to the Third Division, clearly), but it was close. In short, this was the Conservative Party at play. The second half was more even, both sides losing their deposits of energy to such an extent that the man from ITN, filming from the sidelines, said afterwards he always thought football was a game which involved running. The match finished 4-2; Alastair Burt, the Social Security Minister, scored their second, cheating the queue of hacks all claiming the benefit of offside. A parliamentary ombudsman, studying the video evidence, might conclude they had a point. Afterwards there was the presentation of trophies in the supporters' club by Blackpool's Karren Brady-style managing director, Jill Bridge. Here it was agreed it was a wonderful afternoon for those of us whose previous excursions on to the pitches of proper grounds had been as small boys, evading policemen as we ran. Thanks were due principally to Nick Hawkins, the local MP, who had brokered the arrangements. He played the entire match, skipping down the Tories' right wing with a vigour which was not typical of his party. But then he he is probably fitter than your average Tory: he is presently engaged on what is known as the chicken run, dashing south for a safer seat than Blackpool. No wonder: Blackpool had just seen the Tories in action.

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