The Sketch: Chin up. Head down. Best foot forward. Goodbye, Mr Thing

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The Independent Online

It's that time of year again when the journalists gather in the House of Commons committee corridor to witness the sacrifice of the leader, in an ancient ritual that is said to lead (no one knows why) to the rebirth of the Conservative Party.

A hundred journalists, many of them larger than government targets would like them to be, milled in the middle of the corridor.

Some MP muttered to the teller (boastfully, it seemed to me) that he'd got Andrew Murrison's popsy. No, no, I'd misheard. The fact was that Andrew Murrison was poxy. Perhaps that's why he couldn't vote himself. "You need your hearing checked," Peter Luff told me forcefully. Something about a proxy Andrew Murrison had given him. I blame modernisation.

Then it all stilled. The chattering, the cackling, the stupid jokes, the gossip, the speculating, the muttering, the whispering, the plotting, the post-plotting suddenly hushed. We all went quiet and a gangway opened up in the middle of the corridor.

The leader of the Conservative Party had emerged from a door and stepped into the corridor. He started a long walk into the silence. Everyone stared at him. He smiled back, left and right. People just stared. On the front bench before lunch he'd seemed as calm and as good-humoured as if he'd been on the quarterdeck of a man o' war at Trafalgar. He walked his long mile down the corridor in the same spirit. Grace under pressure. Chin up. Head down. Best foot forward.

He went up the steps into the 1922 room and the door shut behind him. The drumming on the tables started. "Don't worry," a shadow cabinet minister reassured his neighbour. "They're just saying goodbye."

The speech lasted half an hour. What was the best line in it? "It wasn't that sort of speech," his supporter Bernard Jenkin said. "There wasn't a best line," an opponent said. "It was long, boring, rambling incoherent mess."

After the pitch and out in the corridor, nobody knew what was going on. Would Howard stitch up a deal with Davis? Would Ancram run? What about Ken? Would IDS hang on with a majority of one?

This lot was saying it was too close to call, that lot was saying he was about to be humiliated, and the other lot (the largest) was saying they hadn't a clue.

Michael Portillo's lips sailed past at head height, like a rubber deck quoit. He favoured me with a cut direct ("And now you are a man," my colleague said). All this is Portillo's fault anyway. If he hadn't been rude to Boris Johnson in the last leadership, Boris might have voted for him and Mr Thing would never have got into the final two.

And finally, the question was: "But what if he wins, Nicholas?"

"In that case," Mr Soames declared magnificently, "we'd be completely fouquet in Le Touquet."

That may yet be the case. This is the Conservative Party, after all.