Party games by the seaside

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The Independent Online

Have you been enjoying the party conference game this week? It's the only game in town! Here's how it works.

Have you been enjoying the party conference game this week? It's the only game in town! Here's how it works.

Every week a different party has a conference in a different seaside or spa town. The top men and women make big speeches to catch our attention. Unfortunately, they can only catch the attention of the people who are in the conference hall, because the rest of us are out of earshot and are certainly not going to watch it on TV.

So how do the politicians get the attention they crave?

They go on TV and radio to be interviewed about the speeches in the conference. But the interviewers don't really want to interview them about the speeches. They want to interview them about other things like, are Gordon and Tony still an item? or, has Tony actually said sorry or hasn't he? or, is Alan Milburn being groomed to outflank Gordon Brown? All these things are dear to the heart of interviewers, even though the rest of us couldn't care less.

So on the Today programme you will find an interviewer, John or Jim, or on Newsnight it might be Jeremy, asking that kind of question. And you will find the politician in the studio, as it might be John Prescott or John Reid, giving answers to completely different questions.

Which is why you get exchanges along these lines:

Today: "Why on earth has Alan Milburn been given the job that Gordon Brown has performed so well in the past two elections?"

Politician: "And it's not just Gordon Brown that has done well - the Government has done well, we've created jobs, we've tackled inflation, we've increased public spending, that's the message we've got to get over, whether it's Alan or Gordon in charge of it, we are the party that people now trust with the economy."

You see? He never got within a mile of answering the question - he was merely obeying instructions to get across the Government's success at any price.

It isn't always the Government's success. Sometimes it's the Ken Bigley crisis that politicians have been briefed to get into their answer, so we get exchanges like this:

Today: "But has Tony Blair actually at any point said he is sorry about the war in Iraq?"

Politician: "What Tony Blair is really sorry about is the agony that Ken and the Bigley family must be going through, and we all feel the awful tragedy of this, but what Tony Blair is not sorry about is having toppled Saddam from power, and I don't see how any of us can be sorry about that."

That is a good answer, because it gets two favourite answers in one (Bigley + Saddam Hussein) without even attempting to answer the question. Of course, this has an effect on the interviewers in the long run, because, knowing they will never get the kind of answer they want, they start incorporating the desired answer into the question, and anticipating the answer they don't want. Hence questions along the lines of:

"Given that you are very sorry about Ken Bigley and that your heart goes out to his family, and given that the Government has done very well economically, and given that the Tory party is in disarray, and we are all glad to see the end of Saddam, how will you deal with the public perception that too many playing fields are being short-sightedly sold off?"

But sometimes interviewers just give up. The other day I heard Tony Blair being interviewed by John Humphrys, and they had clearly sparred their way through the question/ answer routine so often that they could have done it in their sleep, and maybe were, when suddenly Humphrys said: "Do you think in five years' time you will be still be Prime Minister?"

And Tony Blair couldn't believe his ears at getting such a simple question, because he has any amount of answers to deal with that one ("It's not for me to choose, it's for the country ..." or "While there is still a job to do, it will be my duty to ..."). I can't remember which he chose this time, but just for a moment I expected them to burst into laughter to share their joy at such an under-arm full toss.

But of course they didn't laugh. You never laugh when you're playing the conference game. You'd lose too many points.