Sir Throat clears up the questions

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The Independent Online
IT STARTED with a smooth voice on the answerphone and a half-familiar number. When I rang back, late at night after a long drive back from Westminster, the voice declined to give a name. But it sounded friendly enough: 'Mr Marr, you are trying hard, so hard, to grasp what is going on. But you never quite get there, do you? We in the Permanent Government think you need a little help. So shall we say: House of Commons car park - fourth floor - 2am? And bring a Biro.'

Well. Every boy reporter's dream. My own Deep Throat. As it happened, I forgot the Biro, but the man I met, disguised with a peroxide-blonde wig and stick-on moustache, let me borrow his propelling pencil.

Sir Throat's opening explanation was as follows: 'The key to understanding the Major administration is that it seriously intends to tackle the big long-term problems facing Britain. Once you grasp that, then many policies that appear to be ridiculous fall quickly into place.'

Such as? 'Well, let's take one of the big themes that has been widely discussed in your own newspaper by people such as Hamish McRae. Like all Western countries, we have an ageing population. The dilemma of how a shrinking workforce will fund health care and pensions for their parents is a real one. We have made a start on tackling it.'

You mean by increasing National Insurance contributions? 'No, no. By extending value-added tax to domestic fuel. It's tough, I grant you, but we really must thin out the pensioner population. This way, we devolve choice to the family. If you're determined that your old folks should survive the next few winters, you're going to have to pay extra for their heating. But we believe most younger people are pretty pragmatic about the situation.'

And will let them die of hypothermia? But that's . . . 'Only the start, yes. Of course, we must go further, but there is the problem of re-educating some of the ministers. You'd be amazed at the progress that Virginia Bottomley's making, however . . .'

Yes (I said), she's proving quite a hit at question time and in the television studios. 'No, I mean at smoking. We've got her up to 30 a day in her private office. Quite soon, it'll be time to go public]' At this point, Sir Throat became visibly angry, and his wig slipped a bit.

'I must say, I find the selfish and anti-social behaviour of non-smokers quite insufferable. Do they ever stop to think about the burden they will be loading on to the National Health Service by living on into their seventies, eighties or nineties? Do they care about the economic effects? In the old days, you could be reasonably sure that millions of people would be polished off within a couple of years of ceasing economic activity. Quick . . . well, not that quick, but you know what I mean. Efficient, clean. But now . . .

'Anyway,' he said, his voice brightening, 'I think a strong government campaign will do a lot of good in this area. We've started by resisting all moves to ban tobacco advertising. Soon we can go a little further. We're thinking of calling the campaign 'Join Golden Virginia'.'

Well, call me slow, but even I was getting quite excited by the boldness of vision here. Golly. I had had no idea. But I wanted other examples.

'Let's look at something that's been close to the Independent's heart recently, manufacturing industry. The truth is that we're never going to get our brightest and best youth going into engineering or business while they think they can earn several Mercedes and a half-million-quid house by sitting on their bottoms in a merchant bank.'

So the City is a problem? 'Absolutely. Even the Labour Party's noticed that. And yet again, the solution is obvious once you start thinking clearly. We decided, several years ago, to make it impossible to get into London. We've been working closely with British Rail, of course, but our privatisation proposals, plus the new taxes on petrol and swanky company cars, should finish the job.

'I was surprised that no one picked up on the Chancellor's comment during his Budget speech: 'The overall impact will be to shift the tax burden from car buyer to car user'. Very interesting, very clever, you see: we encourage people to keep buying cars, thus helping manufacturers, only not to drive them.

'Cars are an essential status-symbol, like tattoos or feathers among primitive peoples, and of course no Conservative government would undermine the social order by taking them away. But in future they will be stately emblems of success, outside the homes of their owners.' Like a higher form of garden gnome? 'Precisely.'

Was the Government doing anything else to push people into manufacturing? 'Well, the Taurus debacle was an unexpected boon, although Mr Lamont seems surprisingly worried by it. And even you will have noticed the progress we've been making in softening the southern housing market. So the buggers can't get to work; can't do any damage even on the rare occasions when they do; and can't stay at home congratulating themselves about how much their houses are worth. I really think they, or their children, are going to have to consider heading up north and rebuilding our manufacturing base.'

This was all very interesting, but these policies seemed a bit high-minded, obsessively directed at the national good. I'm not a political reporter for nothing, so I asked whether there was not something in it for the Conservatives, too?

My man wheezed with laughter. 'So cynical, you journalists, aren't you? Well, as it happens, you're quite right. One of the Conservatives' problems is that their voters are rather concentrated in southern England. We need to spread them out a bit, and I think our anti-City policies will have that effect. You remember the days of flying pickets? We are thinking in terms of flying voters.

'You may also have noticed that the main infrastructure project we want to go ahead is the Channel tunnel link. The political problem was that our flying voters project might leave London dangerously short of Conservatives. So we intend to encourage the red wine-drinking, culturally progressive types to head for their natural habitat. Paris.'

Sir Throat leant back and stared at me with amusement. 'Now, Mr Marr, will you ever write again that this Government is drifting? That it has no long-term agenda? That it lacks vision?' Well, no, I said. One more thing, though: surely the endless Maastricht business was a giant waste of effort and time?

'Oh, yes? You think the voters care about that? Of course not. You think the politicians do? Well yes, they care passionately. So while they're boring on about that, the MPs - and, if I may say so, the hacks - have failed to notice our real agenda.' And that's convenient, is it? 'I'll say.' But what if I go off and tell everyone about this conversation? 'Dear boy, they'll think you're joking. Won't they?'