The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Nice to know who you're talking to, for once

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The Independent Online
BOURNEMOUTH - 'WHO am I? Who am I?' It was late on Thursday night, and the four of us - myself, Peter Lilley, Mrs Bottomley and Jeremy Hanley - were sitting in the snug bar at the Royal Bath Hotel listening with deepest sympathy to our old friend as he grappled with the eternal question over a stiff gin and tonic. 'Who am I?' he continued. 'Who am I?'

Ever helpful, I was the first to leap to the poor fellow's aid. 'I'm pretty sure you're the Home Secretary,' I chipped in. 'Michael something or other, isn't it?'

'That's it]' said Jeremy Hanley, who, as chairman of the Party, has to be quick off the mark. 'And a jolly good Home Secretary you are too] Michael . . . Michael . . . Michael . . . It's on the tip of my tongue. HANLEY] That's it] Michael HANLEY]'

'But Hanley's your name]' I said to poor old Jeremy. 'Surely it can't be his as well?'

'Quite right. Silly of me. Of course it's my name. That's why it was on the tip of my tongue. But I'm sure it begins with an H. Hitchcock? Hanbury? Hodgkin? Howe?'

'HOWARD]' piped up Peter Lilley. 'It's Michael Howard] You're Michael Howard]'

'You know, I think you're right,' nodded the Home Secretary, sounding relieved. 'I am Michael Howard. Thank goodness for that.'

'I knew we'd getthere in the end,' I said.

'It can sometimes be desperately difficult for perfectly ordinary, decent people leading busy, useful lives to remember who the giddy heck they are,' said Mrs Bottomley. 'You know, sometimes when I'm sitting around the Cabinet table I've frankly got no idea who half of them are. For instance, you - ' she was pointing at the Secretary of State for Social Services. 'I do vaguely recognise you, but for the life of me I can't remember your name] What is it? Do tell]'

'The name's Lilley,' he said.

'But it can't be]' she said, before hesitating. 'I'm so sorry, I could have sworn you were a man]'

'No - my second name's Lilley.'

'So what's your first? Rose?'

'No - Peter.'

'Hmmm. Unusual for a woman.' She saw the look of disappointment on his face. 'But nice. Very nice, I must say. Suits you.'

Small wonder that the theme for the day's conference had been the need for identity cards. One of the reasons my dear old friends and fellow-quaffing partners within the upper echelons of the Conservative Party so enjoy the annual party conference is that within the hall their colleagues must all wear identity tags, so that just this once they can tell who on earth they are talking to. The problem comes later in the evening, when senior members of the Cabinet are tempted to take off their jackets so as to relax in the beautifully carpeted lounges of their four- star hotels. Suddenly no one can remember quite who they are, and confusion ensues.

Only last week, the Prime Minister himself removed his jacket and tie in order to put his feet up with a schooner of lemonade shandy. A minute later, the hotel manager was ordering him on shoe-shine duty, and we didn't see the poor little chap again for a further three hours.

Identity tags for Members' wives have also proved a positive boon to the smooth running of the conference. For many years, senior Cabinet ministers would waste valuable time before balls, cocktail parties, get-togethers and so forth trying to identify which of the many wives was theirs. Theirs is a busy life, and they really should be spared knowledge of the day-to-day running of the home environment. On one notable occasion before identity tags were introduced, poor old Norman Fowler came a cropper. Following a thunderous speech to conference on the need for a crackdown on football hooligans, he hastily beckoned his wife to join him in his ovation. Only when he had already placed his arm around her and was about to plant a kiss on her well-powdered cheek did he suddenly realise that it was not his wife at all, but the Rt Hon Sir Edward Heath.

'I am Michael Howard. I am Michael Howard. I am Michael Howard,' the Secretary of State was repeating to himself as we ascended in the lift together shortly after midnight. 'Like every decent citizen, I have nothing to fear from an identity card, and everything to gain.'

'Quite, quite,' I said, bidding him a very good night. 'Sleep well, Maurice, and see you in the morning.'