The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: I know John Patten's juicy little secret

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The Independent Online
I HAVE known and respected John Patten ever since I first bumped into him behind the gift-wrap counter at Fortnum and Mason way back in the summer of '77. Immaculately turned out, with spotless fingernails and never a hair out of place, he had already cut quite a dash in that most demanding of department stores, and was widely tipped for the plum job at Cosmetics.

Over the course of just three years with the store, he had risen through Household Oils and Assorted Pickles via Bleaches and Stains to take up his present post as Deputy Gift-wrap Supervisor. 'Patten by Name and Pattern by Nature]' he used to joke convivially to all his regular customers, before handing us back the correct change and a receipt with a ready smile.

When the safe Conservative seat of Oxford became available shortly before the 1979 general election, John realised that he was in with a strong chance: the Selection Committee had made it abundantly clear that they were looking for a clean young man with experience in gift-wrapping. Sure enough, he was chosen by a unanimous vote, and the rest, as they say, is history; or would be were it better known. Suffice it to say, John now presides over an Educational System second to none, though 28th to many (I jest]). His Departmental statistics tell their own story: more schoolchildren than ever pursuing further studies in a custodial environment, with far more pupils to teachers than ever before, saving millions of pounds for the taxpayer each year, and, finally, more and more open-air classrooms up and down the country, giving inner-city children the chance to experience the joy of fresh air for the very first time.

All of which leads us to the scrape in which John found himself earlier this week. He had been travelling, you may recall, down to the Eastleigh by-election on British Rail (dread words]) when whom should he bump into but Miss (Mss]) Mo Mowlam. Incidentally, what an absurd name that is] I would never choose to call myself Wa Arnold, and I very much doubt whether Lord Wyatt ever calls himself Wo Wyatt. But I digress. The lady in question - a self-confessed socialist - confided in John that Mr Tony Blair had complained of insufficient room in Downing Street for his wife (who once played Dandy Nichols in Coronation Street) and three children. Quite rightly, John P then made haste to the Conservative press conference and proceeded to spill the proverbial beans on Blair, to many a merry chortle from the assembled inky scriveners.

Result: hoo-ha, with yelps galore over broken confidences. What humbug] The broken confidence has long been the bedrock of political life, and John Patten has every right to indulge in it, just as he himself would be absolutely delighted by my opening revelations concerning his forgotten years behind the counter at Fortnum's. And I know, too, that he'll thank me for divulging a marvellously juicy little secret he recently told me when we were both sweating it out, quite starkers, in a West Kensington Turkish bath the other day.

'Breathe not a word to a soul, Wallace,' he whispered as the beads of sweat played havoc with his parting, 'but I have begun to realise that I am not cut out for this job. Let's face it, I have been an unmitigated disaster ever since I became Secretary of State for Education. It doesn't need me to tell you, Wallace, that every single initiative of mine has been a dog's dinner, an utter shambles. I'm just thoroughly incompetent. Let's face it, Wallace, my smarmy clever-dick manner sets everybody's teeth on edge. If only I'd stayed at Fortnum's, I might have been Assistant Floor Manager by now, with every possibility of running the Health Food counter in the next two to three years. I've made a complete mess of my life, Wallace.'

'Not a complete mess, surely, John?' I said 'I mean, they say you're not at all bad at ludo.'

At this, the poor fellow burst into floods of tears. 'I know I can trust you not to let any of this out, Wallace,' he spluttered. 'You can trust me, John]' I assured him. Nevertheless, I remain quietly confident that he'll be the first to see the joke as he reads this over his boiled egg this merry morn, and that, before long, any talk of broken confidences will be forgotten] Pip] Pip]