AS THE faithful waited, workmen dismantled the conference platform. It seemed that organisers might have forgotten the leader's speech was yet to take place - an understandable oversight - but it turned out that the stage was to have a special configuration for John Major. A Red Sea-like gap was opened in the long desk set from which ministers had addressed the conference, and a forestage, or promontory, constructed at the front of the platform.
At 2.30pm, the Prime Minister burst through the gap and on to the overhang, and began his speech by explaining the symbolism of the furniture-shifting. It emphasised, he explained, his determination to 'reach out to the people'. Looking at Mr Major, a lone figure yards from Cabinet colleagues, other metaphors occurred - someone out on a limb, for example.
The Prime Minister's most intriguing rhetorical decision was to run, as it were, on his leg. A former American presidential candidate - Senator Bob Kerry, who had lost a leg in Vietnam - used to give the only literal example in politics of a stump speech, in which he used his limblessness as a symbol of American can-do. Similarly, Major yesterday used his lameness - a left leg shattered in a Nigerian car accident - to underline his commitment to hospitals and schools. The NHS saved his leg, and rehabilitation had introduced him to Trollope and Jane Austen. He hoped, he said, to ensure these opportunities for every Briton - although this was presumably not a pledge to go round breaking legs.
The most startling piece of writing was an attempted climactic aphorism: 'Running a country isn't like walking down a road'. This was met with baffled silence: what did Major mean? That you cannot, in politics, stay in the middle of the road - you must choose the Left or Right? Or was it part of a metaphorical series? 'Running a country is not like cleaning your teeth', 'Running a country isn't like making a cup of tea' . . .
Tony Blair was not mentioned at all. Baronness Thatcher appeared once only, under the guise of 'an indomitable prime minister' of the past. Michael Portillo was absent from the printed text, but admitted via a rapturously received ad lib.
Conference speeches are written with deliberate 'applause gaps' but Major's audience was notable for its refusal to fill the holes he left them: his hopeful halt after 'We have won the battle of ideas - it is an astonishing triumph' went unrewarded. The section on the NHS included the line: 'Hang on a minute, I haven't finished yet', but there being no interruption at all, was dropped in delivery.
Julian Critchley once referred to certain speakers being able to 'find the clitoris' of the Tory conference. Tory leaders don't have to - the hall will always fake an orgasm. The one they gave Major was equalled only in shamelessness by Meg Ryan's in When Harry Met Sally. Running a country may not be like walking down a road, but making a leader's speech to Tory conference is like being helped across one.
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