Alan Watkins: The age of the Silly Party is here. Which is bad news for Gordon's Sensible Party

Cameron was unashamed in his passion for the Prime Minister
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The Independent Online

I do not remember whether it was The Goodies or Monty Python who first came up with the concept of the Silly Party. I always preferred The Goodies, who possessed an air of innocence, though that might well have been contrived. Besides, Monty Python lacked the technical skill to bring a sketch to a satisfactory conclusion.

The favoured method was to shoot the participants or to bring a heavy weight down on their heads. As a former scriptwriter myself (for BBC3 and The Late Show), I thought the jokesmiths were not earning their money. Comedy writers were - no doubt still are - paid on a more generous scale than, say, political commentators. Indeed, this was the only period in my life in which I was paid a lot of money.

Contrasted with the Silly Party was, naturally, the Sensible Party. Slowly the Conservatives had turned into the Nasty Party, as Ms Theresa May, whose star has been descending of late, memorably described it a few conferences ago.

From his election in 1994, Mr Tony Blair was determined to be nice. He persisted with his policy after he became Prime Minister, for purposes of public consumption, at any rate. In private, he was both more irritable and more ruthless than he seemed. He let down his friends, or those who thought they were his friends.

Like Winston Churchill, he believed in sucking the orange dry and throwing the remains into the bin, or the House of Lords, or wherever it happened to be. There is a whole dossier of unfortunates who have met their fate at Mr Blair's hands. It would be tedious to provide further and better particulars, for it would take up the rest of the column. It is enough to observe that Mr Blair specialises in letting people down.

To the public view, Mr Blair's reputation began to change in, I suppose, 2003. Well before this, he had form as long as your arm. Even so - and even after the change in his public reputation had come about - the opinion polls found that their respondents would "like him as a friend'' who would "come to dinner" or "come out to the pub."

Mr David Cameron has consciously modelled himself on Mr Blair. This was what the young persons surrounding Mr Cameron were looking for when they began their long march through the institutions a few years ago. In fact he was unashamed in his passion for the Prime Minister. Last week he kept coming back to the subject. I counted more references to Mr Blair than to any other topic except the NHS.

In the old days they would have preferred the SAS. That was the special subject of Mr Michael Portillo's choice in that same spot, when he was Minister of Defence in the last Conservative administration. Mr Portillo is no longer a minister; he is not even an MP; as Samuel Johnson once observed of a fellow-author, he hangs loose on society.

He has certainly modified his views in the intervening period, after he was, briefly, the conference hero of the Nasty Party. Mr Portillo has changed. But has his party, if it is any longer his party?

Exertions of Herculean proportions have been performed to transform the Conservatives into the Nice Party. But is there not a danger - I merely pose the question - of turning them into the Silly Party? There is, after all, only the unsteadiest of lines between the two of them.

For instance, I prefer a conference to be a conference, with strong and often opposing views, cogently and even violently expressed. Some of my colleagues at Bournemouth looked back to what had been supposed to be an age of deference and they concluded that the old order was being restored.

But it used not to be like this at all. The wretched Home Secretary of the day had to cower behind demands for the restoration of capital punishment in our schools. The annual debate on Rhodesia was filled with cries of treachery to our kith and kin. There were, to be sure, debates in which speakers merely opposed the motion by telling the authorities that they had not gone far enough in congratulating the Conservative Government of the day. But even before the bitterness of the 1990s, when the party was trying to come to terms with matricide, there were rows in abundance.

All the party conferences have become tamer, like a superannuated pussycat. The parties have even taken to importing the ladies and gentlemen of the press, not to report and comment on their proceedings, but to do a sort of cabaret turn. With Labour, the cabaret was provided by Ms Cherie Booth QC.

With the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, reality, in the political sense of that word - people making speeches - has been transformed into the illusion of a television studio. The audience is pretending to be watching television, except that the affecting tableau is taking place on a platform, in a hall.

Thus my old friend Michael White of The Guardian was hired for the occasion to question Sir Menzies Campbell as if they were both in a television studio. When I switched on my television last week there were Mr Simon Calder of The Independent and Mr Stephen Bayley, who now writes for The Observer, debating animatedly with each other the merits and demerits of cheap air travel. Mr Calder won easily by supporting cheap flights. He described himself as a socialist and clearly has an even more glittering future before him as a conference orator, should he choose to take it up.

But is it what party conferences are for? Or, to put things the other way about, is it what journalists are for? I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but before the 1966 election, when I was working for The Spectator, I and two others, amateurs all, agreed to do a television interview with Barbara Castle. The interview was not stage-managed - there was no preparation of any kind - and she wiped the floor with us.

Most people assumed it had all been fixed in advance. My then editor, Nigel Lawson, did not think that. He thought, rather, that others would think it. He advised me to steer well clear of such projects in future, which advice I have taken.

If the Conservatives are becoming the Silly Party, Labour, under Mr Gordon Brown, is turning into the Sensible Party. The Patron Saint of Silliness is Lady Diana. And, from over 30 years, I can still remember Professor Robert McKenzie of LSE, the swingometer man (now no longer with us), telling the viewers: "A wave of Silliness is sweeping the East Midlands." Or it may have been an actor impersonating the professor. It was certainly on one of the comedy shows of that period rather than on one of the BBC's graver offerings. At the time, I laughed. But the age of the Silly Party may at last have arrived, with catastrophic consequences for Labour's majority.