In 1997, the star of The Odd Couple, Walter Matthau, gave me a very enjoyable interview at his home in Los Angeles for a biography of Glenda Jackson (which is not available in any good bookshops). We were meant to be talking about the two films he had done with Glenda, but we spent most of the time talking about politics. He reckoned there were only two things he valued in a politician. Courage, because he reckoned that he lacked it, having deliberately signed the Stockholm Peace Pledge illegibly so the anti‑communist witch-hunters would never come looking for him, and chutzpah. (He loved Yiddish words.)
Walter would have been happy with Ed Miliband this week. He dripped chutzpah. After all, not even Tony Blair could have lectured a Labour Party conference on One Nation Toryism, let alone cited a Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, with approval. Yet Ed engaged in one of the most flagrant cases of political transvestism in recent history.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Anyone half-worth electing as prime minister (and some who weren’t) has stolen their opponents’ clothes. Despite having been born at Blenheim Palace, when Winston Churchill addressed Harrow schoolboys in 1940, he might as easily have been reading out a Labour Party membership card, declaring that he wanted “to establish a state of society where the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed only by the few shall be far more widely shared by the many”. George W Bush tried something similar with his “compassionate conservatism”, and until very recently the whole point of Cameron was the detoxification of Toryism by donning others’ garb.
But for transvestism not to collapse into drag it has to be sustained and convincing. It requires real commitment. And that’s why one of the most important things Ed said was that Labour understands why people gave Cameron the benefit of the doubt and voted for him last time. Rather than write off 47 per cent of the electorate as per Governor Romney, Labour has to look outside the enclave. Not everyone agrees. I got accused by some conference-goers of “pandering to the Daily Mail” as shadow immigration minister this week (while also being attacked by the Daily Express). Now I don’t care for the politics of those papers; I despise the way they often engineer stories to fit their prejudices and I have often found it ironic that the original owners of the intentionally moralising Mail, the two viscounts Rothermere and Northcliffe, were serial adulterers. But sometimes they have been more in touch with our voters than we have and Labour needs to reach out to their readers.
That doesn’t mean pandering to the hard right. But it does mean addressing concerns over immigration and welfare. Ed has now laid down a challenge to Cameron. If next week’s conference sees a string of right-wing Tory crowd-pleasers, it will be clear that Cameron’s attempt to don husky-chasing, hoodie-hugging, gay-embracing garb was little more than political drag. He should recall that when it seemed that Churchill was not in earnest about egalitarianism in 1945, he lost badly.
And our thanks to the ironing board...
British politics is a shoestring affair, and half the time we are trying to hide the sticky-back plastic that is holding the whole thing together. The Commons convention is that ministers give a copy of their statement to their shadow an hour before delivery. Increasingly, though, this is being more honoured in the breach. Party conference is even worse. Shadow Cabinet ministers are normally drafting their keynote speeches late into the night and one room becomes a press office, typing pool, meeting room, dressing room and bedroom. It is also a vital rehearsal space.
Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper have got this taped, though, as they have a portable lectern, which, when propped up on an ironing board and a couple of boxes of orange juice, passes for a simulated conference podium.
Cutting off one’s nose the Tory way
A French court agreed this week that teacher Jeremy Forrest could be extradited back to Britain under the European Arrest Warrant. Yet only a couple of decades ago such extradition proceedings could take months, and the easiest way to evade justice here was to flee the country. Hence the popularity of the Costa del Crime. Successive British governments worried about this and signed up to changes in 1957, 1977, 1995 and 1996 – and the European Arrest Warrant came into existence in 2004. Such is the wild hatred of all things European that it is rumoured Cameron will announce at Tory conference that they will opt out of the warrant. He must be off his trolley.
Charlotte Church’s awful answer
The most remarkable part of Labour conference for me was meeting the dapper and dignified Christopher Jefferies, who was appallingly smeared by the press (on the basis of nothing) after the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates. Christopher was there to address a fringe meeting by Hacked Off, who are campaigning for statutory powers to ensure redress and reparation for such heinous mistakes. There was some amusement among Labour colleagues, though, when Tom Watson pointed out that the press had even alleged that Christopher was a Lib Dem councillor.
Charlotte Church, inset, who sarcastically dedicates her latest song “Mr The News” to Andy Coulson, will be at the parallel Hacked Off meeting at the Tory conference. When she was invited to sing at the White House, President George Bush asked her where she was from, to which she said: “Wales.” Bush asked: “What state’s that in?” “Awful,” she said. I suspect Bush didn’t even know he’d been outwitted.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies