The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: A nice little number

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The Independent Online
PANIC IS the mainstay of the popular press, but not of the Conservative Party. I have, let me make it quite clear, the fullest confidence in our present Prime Minister. He is, without doubt, immensely able. Indeed, I pride myself on having been one of the first to spot his immense abilities.

I first came across John way back in the early 1980s. He had just bought himself his first pocket calculator, and he was entertaining a small dinner party at the 1983 Conservative conference with a seemingly endless variety of speedy calculations. 'Give me a number, any number,' he would say to his guests. 'Great] Now I'll divide it by four, multiply it by 17.5 and subtract 101, giving us a grand total of 55.5 exactly' - and so on, way into the night. That, I remember thinking to myself, is an immensely able young man.

The next morning, John was up at the crack of dawn, pocket calculator in hand, buttonholing delegates with his devilish gadget as they made their way to the conference hall. It was, I would say, by such diligence at sums rather than through any great 'force of personality' (dread words]) that John finally landed himself a junior post in the Treasury team.

Once at the Treasury - still, I may say, enlivening proceedings 'after hours' with the pocket calculator - he quickly earned himself a reputation for being immensely able. 'You know, Wallace,' dear old Geoffrey Howe whispered into my ear over luncheon (crab cocktail, mixed grill, banana custard) one day at the Savoy Grill, 'that young Major has even managed to get that calculator of his to produce pi]'

'Remarkable,' I replied. 'And does it come with gravy? Can't have pie without a splash of gravy]'

'No - pi,' he replied. 'The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. He just taps in the numbers and there it is - to almost five decimal points]'

'Future Chancellor material there, methinks,' I opined, and Geoffrey wobbled his head gently in agreement.

Just half a decade later, and not only had my prediction come true but John Major was now in the running to be our next prime minister, up against the maverick Heseltine and poor old Hurd. John was very much my man: more classless than Hurd and less go-ahead than Heseltine, he had by now, built up a national reputation for being immensely able. Yet even at the dizzy heights of Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor, he had maintained his sense of fun, and was never slow to brighten up proceedings at the end of a lengthy negotiation by recourse to his faithful pocket calculator. 'Come on,' I remember him once saying to Kurt Waldheim after a round of lengthy talks, 'give us a number - any number]' Needless to say, Waldheim was enchanted by Major's 'light touch'.

Two years ago, John was duly elected leader of the Conservative Party by a clear margin, thus proving for once and for all what an immensely able fellow he was. At the general election, he confounded the pundits by standing on a soapbox and talking directly to the populace, revealing an unexpected rapport with 'the common man'.

'Come on]' he shouted through his megaphone in the market-place in Wolverhampton, 'give us a number - any number'. And with that he drew his calculator from his pocket with a theatrical flourish and proceeded to entertain the crowd with 20 minutes of mathematical high jinks. By the end of that extraordinary performance, I can honestly say that he had all seven members of that crowd eating out of his hand, his aides, wife and children included.

Recently, there is no denying that our economy has been going through a particularly rocky patch. Yet through every fresh disaster, John Major has proved himself immensely able, never allowing one problem to wash over him until the next one has come along. He stands before us today having proved his immense ability time and time again. After all, how else could such an out-and-out nincompoop still manage to be Prime Minister? Don't panic, everyone] Don't panic] Don't panic]