Into this drab scene last Tuesday morning strode the two would-be saviours of the Conservative Party. Before them sat 400 polite party members, the men mostly in dandruffed blazers or tweed jackets, the women wearing brooches and slightly dilapidated perms. Perhaps 50 people in the audience were under retirement age.
David Davis and David Cameron may have many things going for them, but their hustings for the Tory leadership election are an atrocity of bad presentation and paranoia. The uselessness of the operation should make us question the way political parties run themselves and the way they spend millions of poundsof public money.
Non-party members were unwelcome outside the meeting. The press was barred. Anyone without an invitation who tried to find out what was going on inside was treated like an enemy agent, subjected to shifty glances and an indignant hauteur. The whole thing had the air of a trouser-rolling meeting at a Masonic lodge.
I arrived 10 minutes before kick-off, just in time to see Cameron scuttle away from some creaky well-wishers to retreat into a "comfort station" (the Ridley Suite). He and Davis took shelter there until it was time for them to speak to the crowd. Good God, you don't expect them to mingle with hoi polloi, do you?
With no other newsmen on parade I inquired if there might be a chance to stand in silence at the back of the room while the two Davids strutted their democratic stuff. "No!" declared a portly young man in a black suit. "How about if both candidates agree to me listening to their words?" I asked. Some pink-shirted plonker, aged about 14, said it was "out of the question". Both these lackeys, I understand, are paid handsome salaries by Tory HQ. We taxpayers annually give about £4m of "short money" to the Opposition, ostensibly to help the democratic process. It should be spent on intelligent research. Instead, it helps to pay for interfering busy-bodies whose only job justification is to prevent access to their political masters. Maybe it is time for short money to be stopped.
The Tories are trying to present themselves as the champions of open-minded amiability, at one with modern Britain. What do we get? Bullet-skulled paranoia. It is madness. The Tories need, desperately, to speak to the public and win their interest. The leadership contest is a brilliant opportunity for that. Instead, the party that once opposed closed shops has been operating one itself. The control freakery evident on Tuesday was as bad and idiotic as that operated by New Labour.
Some relic of a bygone age called Anthony Braithwaite, chairman of the party's North-east region, almost swallowed his front teeth when I sought his opinion about the Davids. At first he would not utter a word, merely shaking his head like a child refusing a spoonful of cod liver oil. "It's about getting the right chap," he finally stuttered, shaking like a Dresden chandelier. With that he bolted for safety.
Once the doors to the meeting hall slammed shut, it was not even possible to eavesdrop by placing an ear to the keyhole. Two heavies blocked the way. They were both chewing biscuits, hard. When I asked what their problem was, the reply was lost in a blunderbuss scatter of custard cream crumbs.