I dreamt John spake, and it was very good

Mark Lawson
Monday 01 August 1994 23:02

LAST week I had a dream in which - through some terrible accident - I had been hired to write John Major's speech to this year's Conservative Party conference. I kept explaining that I was not a Conservative, but my employers just shrugged and said they had run out of people who were. When the alarm clock went off, I had managed only two words of the keynote address: 'Madam Chairman . . .'

Awake, it struck me that throughout this summer there are some poor sods at Conservative Central Office for whom the question of what Mr Major will say in October is a daily nightmare rather than a one-night one. With a general press consensus that it will be hard to lay a glove on Tony Blair, these speech-writers may be as speechless as in my dream. I began to wonder what, in their position, I would write for the Prime Minister.

It immediately became clear that Mr Blair does represent the hardest Labour target for Tory rhetoric for at least 20 years. Conference polemic depends on constructing a vulgar parody of the other side's leader. But all Mr Blair's most parodiable aspects - his relatively right-wing positions, his extreme physical beauty, his muscular Christianity - more easily accommodate comedy from the left than from the right. Writing an anti- Blair speech for a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference is relatively easy. The broad lines are obvious: 'Soon Tony Blair faces some tough decisions - like should he vote Tory again at the next election', or: 'This man is so right-wing, Marks & Spencer wants to give him money. I knew he was religious but I never realised he'd been praying to St Michael', or: 'Whatever you say about Neil Kinnock, he never wasted time checking his hair in the mirror.'

And so on. Yet such gags - about the leader of the Labour Party really being a Tory, and a God-botherer, and being vain - would clearly be somewhat problematic for Mr Major, addressing a congregation wholly Conservative and mainly Christian, and with a tradition of venerating attractive ministers. Some Conservative MPs, I know, argue that the line against Mr Blair should be: 'Why buy watered-down Toryism when you can have the real thing?' The problem is that watered-down Toryism may be exactly what a large section of the electorate wants, the real thing increasingly giving them shivers. Indeed, this may be Mr Blair's very strategy. So, no. I don't think I would give Mr Major's big speech the theme: 'Don't vote for him, he's a Tory.'

Let's begin somewhere else. Has Mr Major had any gold-star days in the media this year? Yes, two. He received general praise for vetoing Jean-Luc Dehaene as European Union President and for eulogising the late John Smith. I doubt that 'the man who said no to Dehaene' would be decisively morale-raising even in the sellers' market of a Tory Party conference, but Mr Smith is much more promising. It is axiomatic for the Conservative Party that the only good socialist is a dead socialist. Well, now they have one.

'Madam Chairman,' Mr Major might begin. 'Politics is a rough old business. As I have some reason to know . . .' Pause. Wry smile. Face becomes sombre again. 'But, sometimes, we must rise above such things. And, so, before we do anything else today, I ask you to rise and join me in a minute's silence for John Smith . . .' Now the scraping of chairs on the floor has died down, and the Prime Minister begins to speak softly. 'I greatly admired John Smith. He was an honest and decent man. I feel sorry for his family at his loss. Sorry for his country . . .'

Magnanimity towards a dead opponent is risk-free statesmanship. The Prime Minister waves the scimitar of apolitical decency. But here we begin to see how it might serve as an offensive weapon. 'But most of all,' Mr Major confides, 'I feel sorry for Tony Blair - a young man required to step into the shoes of so great a man. I suppose I can tell you now that, secretly, we really feared facing John Smith in a general election . . .'

This is a lie, but not ruled out of a hypothetical exercise in speech-writing. 'We feared him,' the PM continues, 'because he had made the Labour Party electable. He had put it in order.' By now the audience is wondering if Britain may be about to face the first general election in which the two main party leaders vote for the other side. But now Mr Major chuckles. 'Well, dear oh dear, Madam Chairman, now Mr Blair seems to be set on making it unelectable all over again . . .'

Here he inserts a few motions from the Labour Party conference the week before, lines from anti-Blair fringe speeches like the ones outlined above. Perhaps no such ammunition will be available, but it probably will. Being a more controversial choice as leader than John Smith, Mr Blair seems certain to excite more internal dissent.

At this point, Mr Major begins to tackle the beauty thing. 'Admittedly, a lot of people find Mr Blair attractive. I'm told he's a good- looking man. But politics isn't a beauty contest. Thank heavens for that - or I wouldn't have got very far.'

This passage plays to the Prime Minister's strengths, or strength, as he has a certain talent for self-deprecating humour. This is largely because, as in the old joke, he has a lot to be self-deprecating about, but we would be silly not to use this definite, visible skill. 'All right,' he smiles. 'I admit it, Mr Blair. I'm not just a pretty face . . .'

Here, Mr Major is attempting the traditional revenge of the plain against the pretty: painting Mr Blair as a bimbo. But another tactic of the plain is to point out ugliness elsewhere, and now the speech goes on: 'But Mr Blair isn't the Labour Party's only new face. They've got a new deputy leader, too . . .' An anticipatory shiver sweeps the hall. 'No. Don't laugh. I really admire John Prescott . . .' The crowd becomes confused. 'He's done so well. Who would ever have thought it? John Prescott - potentially just one heartbeat away from No 10.'

This is constitutionally untrue - for the deputy does not automatically become PM in the event of Mr Blair's departure - but one Tory recently assured me that this vice-presidential fallacy will be employed, at least at constituency level.

There are other rhetorical possibilities. Mr Major could play the class card: 'Public school, Oxbridge - what does Mr Blair know about the real world? I started with nothing.' This, though, again sounds more like a Labour Party attack on its leader.

No. The irreplaceability of John Smith, Bimbo Blair, Vice-President Prescott - these seem the most promising lines of attack. It remains, though, a nightmare job.

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