Dyb, dyb, dyb and a few more election strategies

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
Bournemouth - It all harks back to my days as a Boy Scout, but I still have an unbridled enthusiasm for shirtsleeves! Strange to relate, it was while serving as an Assistant Scout Master in the early 1960s that I first came across Junior Patrol Leader (as he then was) Mawhinney. I need hardly add that, even at the tender age of 10, Brian was a credit to the Movement. The first time I set eyes on him, there he was, jacket off, shirtsleeves rolled up, busy with his blades. "Is it strictly necessary to saw that lad's leg off?" I asked, not wishing to curb any of Mawhinney's natural zest, but worried lest his victim's transgression was insufficient to merit such punishment.

"But sir!" piped up Mawhinney, "I'm going for my Backwoodsman's Badge, and there's no twigs!"

"Carry on, lad!" I chortled, impressed by such a display of initiative in one so young. In case the more "New Labour" of my readers, steeped in Political Correctness (dread words!) might baulk at the courage needed to saw off the leg of a cub scout just to gain a badge, I should reassure them that the cub in question was more than grateful, for it put him bang in the middle of the fast lane for the Hopping Badge he had cherished ever since he could walk.

Ah, memories, memories! It was the sight (not to mention the smell - I jest!) of Dr Brian Mawhinney in his shirtsleeves at this week's conference that set me forth upon this delicious reverie. To be frank, I had had a quiet word in the good doctor's ear only the day before. "Ging, gang, goolie, Brian!" I said, as we paraded along the front at Bournemouth. "Remember those days by the camp fire, you in your shirtsleeves, Brian - and remember too that aroma of authority that seemed to whistle through the air! Brian - you must repeat that show tomorrow and, believe me, lad, you will have the conference eating out of your unjacketed hand!"

Brian's medallion swung from side to side - a sure sign the man is thinking, and thinking hard. He had earned that medallion by saving an old lady from drowning, or rather he had ditched the old lady and saved the life raft, later converting it into kindling for a first-class camp fire, "You're right, Wallace," he said, "Maybe I should also get a few twigs together, light a fire on stage, and muster a little conference sing-song - 'The Quartermaster's Stores', 'The Good Ship Lollipop', or whatever seems most appropriate at the time, eh?"

I thought no more of our little exchange until a call came through late that night. It was Brian's voice, obviously happy as Larry. "Wallace, old man," he said, "I am with the Prime Minister now. We are both in our shirtsleeves. Never felt so positive! It's looking great!' I slept like a child that night, confident in my belief that, shirtsleeves out, Brian had every hope of steering the PM to the longest ovation in our Party's history. Of course, after her election victory in '87, Margaret Thatcher had been awarded a triumphant 26 hr 24 mins standing ovation, many of the delegates managing to eat and shave whilst applauding, still others having their hair dressed or being fitted for a new suit, a handy bucket being handed from row to row by trained supervisors for those wishing to relieve themselves. Could we top that? Well, we could certainly give it a go!

The big day arrived. The hall was filled with the hush of expectancy. Of course, the Prime Minister has always had the knack of being supremely casual: I am told that he is fully able to perform an unscripted smile, and I have it on the very best authority that, every now and then, he wears pyjamas to bed without a necktie. So when Brian announced to the conference that the PM would be conducting an informal question-and-answer session, I was greatly cheered. Minutes later, when the Prime Minister was charming everyone with his casual patter ("What's my favourite colour? Tricky one! Do you know, I think I like them all the same!") they both began removing their jackets, then their cuff links. Before long, the two of them had kicked off their shoes, and Brian was helping the Prime Minister with his socks.

Frankly, I am of the opinion that one can take informality too far. Jackets, yes, shoes, yes - but socks, shirts, neckties, trousers and finally underwear? Thankfully, it was at this point that the television cameras cut out and the test-card was brought into play. I am all for election victory, but there must surely be limits, even from an old Boy Scout.