Conference Sketch: The plot exists but the back bench has lost it

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The Independent Online

Someone's lost the plot, and I'm afraid to say it will be the MPs. As ever, the iron laws of politics say: the more we believe in politicians the more we will be disappointed.

Getting rid of the Tory leader is one of the easiest tasks in Westminster. Every second MP confirms the existence of a plot and expresses their preferred leader. As a result, we have been tempted to believe that there are 25 Tory MPs who can write a letter and, under complete anonymity, give it to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. But walking down the corridor presents problems for the spineless, and the visceral absence in the Tory backbench is only matched by its testicular deficiency.

On a lighter note, Michael Ancram went for the Government in general and Tony Blair in particular with enormous scorn, contempt and conviction. He accused the Prime Minister of walking by on the other side at the same time as standing idly by. People were being crushed (or the unluckier ones, pilloried) on the anvil of his survival. The stench at the Government's heart was corrosive. He, it, they were going to be "swept, stench and all, into the dustbin of history".

The Prime Minister must have felt savaged, if not by a dead sheep at least by a dangerously ill one.

Something of the night about him, they say. Yes, there are other reasons to admire Michael Howard, the aptly named Shadow Chancellor. Even his lacklustre performances look deadlier than his rivals' sparkling ones. We all caught an invigorating whiff of sulphur as his speech failed to fire up the conference in the way that Mr Ancram's corrosive, heart-stanching, anvil-pillorying rhetoric did.

We were in a section called Further Tax Rises. "I want to be perfectly honest with you," he said, and we realised that was one thing we would all instinctively shrink from. "There are splits on tax."

A terrible silence opened up, and Mr Howard's strange, super-villain smile became the central feature of the hall. For new readers: The Tory leader wants to promise tax cuts for the next election and his shadow Chancellor refuses to co-operate. Perhaps Mr Howard is keeping the modernisers onside (who, because they are mentally defective, want to campaign on the theme of higher taxes). It was a joke, in the end, but flatter than Norfolk.

But Mr Howard's defects are part of his virtues. His darkness will be useful to suck in the daylight radiance of our Prime Minister. As Clementine said of her husband, "Only Winston has the deadliness to fight Hitler". Deadliness, that's what Tories need, not decency.