Another late night in Downing Street

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The Independent Online
Sometimes, late at night, when I am on my way home after a hard day stuck in the underground trying to get to work, I pass by Downing Street and see the lights still on at No 10, and I know that the Prime Minister is up later even than me, trying to think of ways to get his message across. And occasionally I pop in to see him, trading on a friendship which goes back years, back to the days when we were both on the same ocean cruise together and went in for the same John-Birt-Lookalike contest one afternoon. (Even then he was obviously on the way up, as I remember distinctly that he won first prize, while I came nowhere and had to be content with a Michael-Checkland-vague-resemblance consolation prize.)

So it was the other night, when I dropped in at No 10 and found Mr Major, still in his shirt-sleeves, sitting at the cabinet table all by himself with thousands of bits of paper stacked in front of him.

"Still trying to get the message across, John?" I said.

"Ah," he said, "are you the new man from Saatchi? Brought any bright new ideas with you?"

I ignored this mysterious remark.

"What are all these bits of paper?" I said. "Is this how Cabinet reshuffles are done? Put everyone's name on a bit of paper and pick them at random? Well, that would certainly explain certain appointments in the past ..."

"No, you're way off the mark," he said. "You remember I asked the voters to send me their suggestions for nominations for the honours list? Well, they certainly responded. These are some of their suggestions for honours. Of course, some of them were frivolous and suggested honours for their friends and relations. Others were pretty clearly disguised press relations campaigns for clients. You'd be surprised how many `ordinary' voters wrote in suggesting a peerage for ... well, no names, no pack dr ill! Anyway, some of the punters wrote down some ideas for future policy along with their honours proposals, and I was just having a look through to see if any of them were any good."

"If it's ideas you're after," I said, "I can let you have a few. Inflict VAT on books ..."

"Too unpopular," he said, frowning.

"Let me finish," I said. "Inflict VAT on books by Jeffrey Archer."

His brow cleared.

"I like that," he said. "Something has to be done about that man. Whenever I come up with a good idea, Jeffrey spoils it by springing to my defence. I wish we could damp him down in some way."

"Put VAT on insider share dealing?" I suggested.

"Hmmm," frowned the PM.

"Propose devolution for the Foreign Office? Privatise roads? Make unemployment illegal?"

"Hmmm," frowned the PM again. "Well, they're all good new ideas, but I sometimes wonder in the dead of night whether we actually need good new ideas."

"How do you mean, Prime Minister?"

"Our contacts in the business world tell us that business people are sick of bright new ideas. They just want calm and a settled policy, a steady-as-you-are outlook, so they can get down to business without looking over their shoulders."

"Fair enough."

"Our media contacts, on the other hand, insist the opposite - they say that unless we keep coming up with new options and initiatives, the press and TV will get bored with us."

"Fair enough."

"And we still haven't decided whether we want to win the next election or not."


"Oh, there is a sizeable minority in the party that didn't want to win the last one, and doesn't want to win again. Why can't Labour have the mess for a while? That's their feeling. I can see it makes sense. And I am placating them by encouraging the Euro-rebels, pressing ahead with rail privatisation, getting closer to Europe, and all the other things that could lose us an election if necessary. And we still haven't felt the arms-to-Iraq Scott inquiry backlash ..."

"Will that be bad?"

"Bad? Just between you and me, it turns out that William Waldegrave had been shipping veal calves out to Iraq. That's how bad it is."

I looked at the bits of paper on the table.

"Here's an idea. Why not ask the ordinary voters to write in with suggestions for your next Tory manifesto? Just like the honours suggestions?"

Momentarily he brightened. Then his brown mood returned.

"Hmmm," he frowned, and sank into silence.

I left him like that. He was obviously a man with much on his mind.