If you want to get ahead, get a sobriquet

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The Independent Online

These days, there is one sure way of getting into the papers. It is to be part of a group, if possible under some catchy title. Made-up lists, of people or institutions having no real connection with one another, are a variant of the same procedure. I did not invent the Hampstead Set, for the politicians around Hugh Gaitskell in the late 1950s. But I knew the man who did. He was the then author of the "Crossbencher" column in the Sunday Express, and it was in 1959. I modestly claim to have invented Young Fogeys in The Spectator in 1984.

These days, there is one sure way of getting into the papers. It is to be part of a group, if possible under some catchy title. Made-up lists, of people or institutions having no real connection with one another, are a variant of the same procedure. I did not invent the Hampstead Set, for the politicians around Hugh Gaitskell in the late 1950s. But I knew the man who did. He was the then author of the "Crossbencher" column in the Sunday Express, and it was in 1959. I modestly claim to have invented Young Fogeys in The Spectator in 1984.

Sometimes the names are not bestowed by journalistic outsiders but by the members of the group themselves. They do this because they think, usually correctly, that they will gain publicity thereby. This was so of the Blue Chip Group, which was established by some young Conservative backbenchers in the early 1980s. Their aims were to counteract the influence of Margaret Thatcher - they saw themselves as the successors of the old One Nation Group - and, what was more important, to announce themselves as candidates for high office.

As they included Tristan Garel-Jones, Chris Patten, John Patten and William Waldegrave, they were not unsuccessful in this second objective. They had, however, a tendency to fall off the ladder just short of the ceiling. They were even less successful in the first objective, to be a countervailing force to Thatcherism.

Indeed, most of them ended up joining the old girl, which was inevitable, given their ambition. Their two aims were ill at ease with each other. Some of them, such as Chris Patten, continued to show their doubts; while others, notably Lord (as he subsequently became) Garel- Jones, were more royalist than the Queen, even though there were always questions about where he - the Peter Mandelson of the Tory party, even if in a more modest way of business - stood precisely in relation to the leader.

Whether the publicity which, in modern journalism, such groups inevitably gather to themselves is unequivocally a good thing is a more complicated question. On the one hand, there is the popular view that all publicity is good publicity. On the other hand, however, all groups attract the underdog's snarl. This is especially so in England, where the universal presumption is that groups are formed for the sole purpose of keeping other people out of them. For instance, the members of the Garrick Club - by and large, a meritocratic institution - have almost certainly written more reputable books or, for that matter, books of any kind than the inhabitants of the average newspaper office. And yet their authors are invariably depicted in those same newspapers as privileged idlers.

This fate has not yet befallen the Notting Hill Set who are supposed to be around Mr Michael Howard; partly, no doubt, because they are too young to have written many books, always assuming they would have summoned up the energy to embark on the project in the first place. Rather have they been depicted as somehow glamorous figures, much as Anthony Eden's followers, "the glamour boys", were portrayed in the late 1930s, even if the latter description had a certain ironical intention to it.

In particular, they have attracted the kind of writing which first emerged in The Sunday Times, or it may have been The Observer, in the 1960s. One of its features is what might be called the adjectival phrase of illogicality, as in: "Astonishingly blue-eyed with a beautiful Swedish wife, and a keen yachtsman, his chief political interest is the Army." Eh? If he is such a keen yachtsman, his chief interest should surely be the Navy.

The principal characteristics of the set, who seem to be 14 in number (a suspiciously exact figure), is a desire to become Tory MPs or, if they are MPs already, ministers in a government led by Mr Howard. There is, as far as one can see, no element of disloyalty to the present leader. If anything, the object is to keep him on the straight and narrow, as mapped out by the old girl herself all those years ago.

It does not seem a very adventurous programme of action. It is guided - though this in itself is no obstacle to adventure - by self-interest and ambition. But the way is being impeded by ageing and largely inactive MPs known as "bed-blockers". The metaphor is lively enough as these things go in politics. But it is not very happy all the same, suggesting as it does not only that the obstructive members are in an NHS geriatric ward but that their successors will shortly be moving into the same geriatric ward themselves.

The metaphor may be unfortunate but it may be apposite none the less. For the first time since the early 1920s, when Labour supplanted the Liberals, there is some doubt about which is the real party of opposition to the Government. The formal opposition is still the Conservative Party, because it has more seats than the Liberal Democrats, a state of affairs which is likely to persist after the election. There is little chance that Mr Charles Kennedy will succeed Mr Howard as Leader of the Opposition as Ramsay MacDonald succeeded H H Asquith.

Yet in some ways our politics today are just as complicated as they were just after the First World War. In some respects they are even more interesting. For in those days we had a Labour party which, in theory at any rate, was a socialist party. The Liberal Party had been split by David Lloyd George through its participation in his Coalition governments of 1916-18 and 1918-22. The remnant was a recognisable Liberal party, slightly to the left of the Conservatives and well to the right of Labour.

Not so today. The Liberal Democrats are now the true party of the left. Mr Tony Blair's taking over of Conservative ground may or may not be a shrewd piece of strategic positioning. I suspect he genuinely believes most of the stuff he spouts. But who cares whether it is an act or not - whether it is all really designed to make the land safe for social democracy - when he is busily implementing schemes of which the Notting Hill Set devoutly approve, not least because they remind them of the great heroine herself, who is still with us?

Mr Kennedy, by contrast, represents the Left, not only because of his party's attitude to Iraq, but also because of his sensible approach to such matters as "choice". I once knew a Welsh draper who would charge different prices for ties of identical material because, he claimed, they represented good quality, excellent quality and extra special quality. It is the same with choice in 21st-century capitalism, over which Mr Howard and Mr Blair have recently been squabbling like ... well, like a girl in a Notting Hill bar over a spare glass of Chardonnay.

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