How to spot prime ministers past, present and possible

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I AM VERY pleased to welcome back our expert political commentator, Sir John Potter, to answer questions about the current political scene. John Potter was the personal assistant to the private secretary of Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, and was thus close to someone who was very close to someone who really was close to someone. Upon leaving office, he was knighted for his services to Sir Bernard Ingham, and for keeping quiet generally.

All yours, Sir John]

Is it too late to ask for a clear explanation of what this 'back to basics' business is all about?


Because the Tories don't know what it is all about. Even when Gerry Adams asks them to clarify it, they won't. And anyway, the back to basics thing is all over now. It's been replaced by something else.

Oh, God, has it? By what?

By 'back to back to basics'. In Westminster they are asking only one thing: 'Are we going back to back to basics or not?'

What does that mean?

Nobody knows.

Do you know?

Yes. It means: 'Has John Major got any new ideas yet?'

And has he?

No, of course not. John Major still identifies the Tory party with old-fashioned values.

What sort of old-fashioned values?

The values of the Church of England.

What values does the Church of England stand for?

Selling all your assets, throwing all your money away on stupid investments, going deeply in the red, paying your workers slave wages, treating women like dirt, failing to show a lead on anything, not being sure if God exists, having a shady sex life . . .

Good heavens. Does the Tory party stand for all these virtues?

Well, it practises them.

But surely the Tory party doesn't despise women? Look at Edwina Currie . . . Look at Virginia Bottomley . . . After all, Virginia Bottomley is often referred to as a possible future prime minister.

Of course. Everyone in Parliament is referred to as a possible future prime minister. That is the very least that an MP can expect. Jeffrey Archer was once referred to as a possible future prime minister. If it can be said of him, it can be said of anyone.

Are there no exceptions?

Yes. There are some people who have already been prime minister and who are unlikely to be prime minister again. They are not referred to as possible future premiers. There are other people for whom it is too late. Douglas Hurd, perhaps, or Michael Heseltine. They might be called 'possible past prime ministers'.

In that case, how would John Major be designated?

He is a possible present prime minister.

What about Edwina Currie?

The only interesting thing about Edwina Currie is that she is always referred to as 'the controversial Edwina Currie'. There is only one controversial thing about her, and that is the mystery of why she is referred to as 'the controversial Edwina Currie'.

Was Stephen Milligan a possible future prime minister?

Of course.

But I had never heard of him before he died.

Of course you hadn't. Had you heard of Hartley Booth before he resigned?

Sorry - who?

Good heavens. The public's memory is even shorter than I had thought.

Can I bring up the subject of Michael Howard?

Must you?

Well, I just wanted to know why he had raised the penalties against cannabis-smoking when everyone seemed to be against his doing so - and I don't just mean the liberal bodies you'd expect to be against it, but groups such as the Police Federation, and so on.

People misunderstand Michael Howard. When he says such things as 'Prison works]' in ringing tones, even though people know that it doesn't, and he knows it doesn't, he is not saying that in spite of the experts - he is saying that precisely because people are against him] He deliberately looks for ideas that all the experts are against, then promotes them, because he thinks this will coincide with the gut feeling of the people, who will then vote for the Tories in May.

Is he right?


May I just belatedly refer to Michael Portillo and his insinuation that foreigners act corruptly?

If you must.

What foreigners was he referring to?

I believe he was referring to the way in which the Malaysians were foolish enough to be sucked into a web of corrupt practice and arms chicanery by Margaret Thatcher and the Tory government.

Sir John Potter will be back again soon. Keep those questions rolling in.