Richard Ingrams' Week: A typical toff in ruthless pursuit of the prizes

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The Independent Online

Image-conscious "dude" is how the Wall Street Journal has described David Cameron following the revelations about his pot-smoking at Eton. Far from damaging his image, the journal says, the story makes Cameron look "sexier and more daring" than his rival, Gordon Brown.

What the writer overlooks is the possible damage done to Cameron, not by the pot smoking, but all those pictures of him living it up in a white tie and tails and, in particular, the posed photograph of the members of Oxford's exclusive Bullingdon Club.

The press "fastened on the thought that I was an out-of-date sort of candidate - a patrician, upper class, a toff". So wrote Cameron's fellow old Etonian Douglas Hurd on his unsuccessful battle for the Tory leadership with John Major in 1990. Very mindful of this, Cameron, who is much more of a toff than Hurd, has gone out of his way to dispel all signs of toffery. Not only does he not wear the old school tie, he wears no tie at all. When he goes to church, as he did last Sunday, he is careful to look as scruffy as possible. Even his posh wife, Samantha, dresses down for the occasion.

The Oxford pictures, which may well haunt Cameron for the rest of his life, may give a very different picture of the Tory leader. These young men, dressed up like characters in a Jane Austen novel, look self-assured and even arrogant. In my time at Oxford, we used to call such types "the bloodies".

Once a bloody, always a bloody. Cameron may have changed his costume and professed his "compassion" for hoodies. But I suspect I will not be the only one to think that, underneath it all, he remains a traditional Tory toff in ruthless pursuit of those famous glittering prizes.

Less choice, more decisions

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Last week, on Channel 4 News, one of Mr Blair's eager spin merchants was defending the Downing Street website, which has allowed people to set up their own petitions - presumably to take the strain off the doorkeeper at No 10, who has to answer the bell and take in those bulging sackfuls of signatures before, presumably, putting them in the incinerator.

The idea which lies behind the website and a lot of political, commercial and even journalistic thinking is to find out what people want you to do and then to do it for them.

In political terms, it is all a big mistake. The only possible approach is for the Government to do what it wants to do, on the assumption that, if it gets it wrong, it may get booted out. Otherwise, it just looks as if it has no idea about what to do in the first place.

Similarly, the editor of a newspaper should put in the articles that interest him in the hope that his readers will feel the same way and so continue to buy the paper.

Unfortunately, that is not the way things work nowadays. There exists a huge army of consultants, focus groups and what have you who claim to be able to find out in advance what policies the public wants, what kind of programme it would like to watch or what sort of articles it would be happiest reading.

The flaw is that most people don't know what they want until they get it. Asked by someone with a clipboard to nominate their choice, they will either lie or tell the clipboard holder what they think he wants them to say.

* There is a further chapter in the farcical story of the BBC's "idents" - those little bits of film between the programmes that remind you which channel you are watching.

You may remember that, for some years, BBC1 featured a huge red balloon floating majestically over various British beauty spots. This was supposed to give the BBC what they called "a cuddlier image".

The balloon launched in 1998, was part of a £5.2m revamp of the corporation's image and the filming was not only expensive but also rather dangerous, as the balloon had a nasty habit of lurching out of control and crashing.

Three years later, the newly appointed head of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, scrapped the balloon altogether. She said it was too slow and didn't feel "in touch with the viewers".

In its place came various groups of people, all dressed in red and black - some tango-dancing, some precariously balanced on seaside rocks doing t'ai chi exercises. The estimated cost was £700,000. Last year, however, the t'ai chi men were given their marching orders by yet another BBC1 chief, Peter Fincham. He opted instead for synchronised swimming hippos and children playing in a meadow. They cost £1.2m and involved filming in Mexico and Croatia.

The latest news is that BBC2 is determined not to be outdone. It too will have new idents, including the "figure two cut into the door of a tent to reveal a pop festival". The channel's controller, Roly Keating, said they would embody BBC2's "distinctive humour, creativity, playfulness and surprise". Filmed partly in South Africa, they have cost more than £700,000.

When it comes, as it soon will, to make a replacement, I recommend film of a suitably playful group of smiling men and women accepting large sums of money from the public and pouring it all down the drain. Filmed in Honolulu, of course.

theoldie@theoldie.co.uk

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