D J Taylor: The glittering prizes

The Bottom Line: Our commentator catches up with the latest goings-on in party politics and popular culture – and finds things have a way of going full, or at least half, circle

The really disquieting thing about David Cameron's conference speech to the Tory faithful last Wednesday – at any rate, from the angle of the left-leaning sceptic – was the relish one took in the rage of some of his targets. All through the conference, in fact, I found myself making a note of the various institutions whose squeals of pain could be heard filtering up through the television studios, and registering a profound gratification in their exposure. Just as the sight of the BAA's Willie Walsh spitting tacks over the Conservatives' aviation schemes prompted the thought that clearly they must have something going for them, so the spectacle of the man from the NUT bristling over his spectacles at the idea of greater independence for state schools suggested that Tory education policy must be bang on.

No doubt I am wrong about this. At one point in Cameron's speech I was struck by a queer feeling of familiarity, the thought that I had heard the words before but in a slightly different context. The moment came when Cameron was recounting the dismal experiences of a constituent of his, whose wife contracted MRSA in an NHS hospital and later died, and the deeply evasive letter he had received from the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Rather than offering a personal response to an individual case – apologising, say, for a squalid and unnecessary death – Mr Johnson had taken refuge in a series of bromides about the NHS complaints policy. Like Charles Ryder, in the opening tranche of Brideshead Revisited – more of which in a moment – I knew suddenly that I had been here before. The tone of Johnson's reply was exactly that of a letter Charles Clarke, then Labour Party chairman, once sent me in response to a complaint about the £5,000 donation to party funds subbed up by that tribune of the people Richard Desmond. To the question "Do you think this is the kind of man you should be taking money from?", Mr Clarke returned a two-page summary of the new Labour Party funding code. At some point there will be a reckoning for all of this.

* About halfway through Cameron's speech, the sense of recognition became as much literal as linguistic. Throughout the proceedings, the Shadow Cabinet sat grouped in a phalanx behind the podium – suavely attentive, startlingly well groomed and, as such, a magnet for any television camera that opted to stray beyond the leader's gesticulating arm. Even in dramatic close-up, though, it took me a moment to identify the demure lady with the grey-blond hair as Cheryl Gillan MP, my old boss from the Ernst & Young marketing department. (I remember Mrs G as a courteous and considerate employer, much interested in plein air frolics, who liked asking the secretaries about what she called "OBs", ie "outside bonks".)

Then, looking at the collection of heavy-faced and mostly male companions on either side, I felt another odd tremor. Who did they remind me of? Correction: of whom did they remind me? They reminded me, not to put too fine a point on it, of the ghosts of the officers of the Oxford University Conservative Association (Ouca) circa 1981: all those bright, confident chaps whose faces – a fraction less jowly then – could be seen peering out of the Students' Union bar as one trudged by on the way to some poetry reading or other.

In one case, the resemblance was actual, not figurative. As the shadow Foreign Secretary's billiard-ball hairstyle slid shinily into view, I suddenly remembered an evening spent in his college rooms adding a bit of student journalist's expertise to the laying out of the Ouca manifesto. Just like his colleague Mrs Gillan, William Hague was extremely affable and amusing. Two items in his rooms caught my eye. One was the famous signed photograph of Mrs Thatcher. The other, lurking unobtrusively on his shelves, was a book called The Pursuit of Power. And so the pursuit goes on.

* At least this suggested continuity. Some of the Cameron speech, on the other hand, reminded me of the Max Beerbohm "Young self/old self" cartoons, whose elderly protagonists reveal that the opinions of their youth have undergone a 180-degree turn. The novelist Anthony Powell used to enjoy "Young self/old self" moments listening to friends with rather rackety pasts complaining about the kind of people they were letting into gentlemen's clubs these days. Cameron's came when the former Thatcherite Young Conservative briskly condemned his opponents for having forgotten that there was such a thing as "society". Another richly ironic such moment turned up in the blizzard of press advertising commissioned by the UK's 65th richest person, the magazine publisher Felix Dennis, to promote his book of poems, Homeless in My Heart (Ebury Press), which no less a pundit than Jon Snow described as "rich, sumptuous and beautifully threaded". Interviewed on Radio 4, the impresario of early 1970s counter-culture and erstwhile editor of Oz declared that he had turned to poetry because the younger generation represented by his children was "illiterate" and communicated only by text message. There is a moral here somewhere.

* The point of the "Young self/old self" joke, of course, is that its subject is blissfully unaware of the showing-up. Hastening up on the other flank, alternatively, is the kind of person who is all too conscious of his or her past life and rather anxious to reinvent it. Scanning the barrage of interviews that accompanied this week's launch of the film of Brideshead Revisited, I deduced that Emma Thompson (apparently a passable Lady Marchmain) belonged to the second category. The critics, by and large, have been very savage about this adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, and fallen over themselves to demonstrate its inferiority to the 1981 Granada TV version. Ms Thompson, asked what she'd thought about the talismanic original, claimed never to have watched it. Off her cultural radar, she further explained: "I was a punk rocker." A glance at the websites confirms that Ms T was then studying English at Newnham, the friend of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, and an ornament of the Cambridge Footlights. Punk rock, one may add, was by that time possibly the least fashionable musical styling in England. The chances of her not having watched Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in action, consequently, were about the same as Felix Dennis's of being reviewed in the TLS.

* Battle-scarred veteran of the 1970s censorship wars that he is – Oz featured in a famous obscenity trial – Mr Dennis has probably taken an interest in the "Freedom to read" campaign, which has been making its presence felt on the blogs. What with protests over US screenings of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and the attempted attack on the home of the publisher of The Jewel of Medina, there is, as ever, a whole stack of books out there whose right to existence needs defending, mostly from people who wouldn't know what a book was if they fell over one in the street. At the same time, it tends to be forgotten that censorship can work to the writer's advantage.

This is particularly true in the field of sex, where bygone ukases on what could and couldn't be said often forced novelists to work by stealth, devising highly imaginative codes that switched-on readers could gleefully decipher. One of the sexiest women in fiction, for example, is Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp, whose romps with the Marquis of Steyne, if indeed they occur, take place off stage and whose physical charms are conveyed in a few laconic remarks about "famous frontal development".

One can't help feeling that the real censorship these days is exercised not by Islamists, most of whom tend to be instantly mocked for their presumption, but by well-meaning book and newspaper editors anxious not to offend various almost spectral constituencies whose liability to take offence has never actually been proved. Not long back, going over an autobiographical piece, an editor tentatively suggested that I might like to cut a sentence about my father's eagerness to escape "the monotonous thraldom of the council estate". The sentence referred to a single, individual experience – a bit like the letter from the man whose wife died from MRSA and got a smokescreen of generalisations in return.