Friday, 10 April 2015

Where's Willie?

In November 1990, the Conservative MP Emma Nicholson asked Brian Griffiths, the head of the policy unit at 10 Downing Street, to pass on a message to Margaret Thatcher. The message was that Nicholson would not be supporting the prime minister in the forthcoming leadership election, in which she was being challenged by Michael Heseltine.

Griffiths's response to this request was one of genuine surprise: 'Are you telling me that this election actually matters?'

At the same time, a loyalist MP, Alan Clark, went to see Peter Morrison, the 'noted pederast' who was running Thatcher's election campaign, and found him fast asleep and 'sozzled' at three o'clock in the afternoon.

The Conservative Party often struggles to tell the difference between confidence and complacency. There are times when it works: Harold Macmillan exuded self-contentment to great effect as prime minister. And then there are times - such as the fall of Thatcher - when it all goes very wrong indeed. The current campaign is beginning to look as though it might fall into the latter category.

Obviously the key message is meant to be steady-as-she-goes. And perhaps the strategists are thinking that, with nearly four weeks to go, they don't want to peak too early. But some sign of life would be sensible.

We all know that this election isn't about policy (it's the greatest cliche in modern politics, but there really is very little to choose between what the two main parties would actually do in government). We all know as well, however, that it's part of the game to try to catch the eye of the media - and maybe even the electorate.

And so far, I'm struggling to remember what the Tories have come up with. There was something reported on Radio 5 Live with the curious phrasing: 'Primary school children who fail their SATS will have to retake them under a Conservative government.' Which raised the image of five years of Labour government, after which a new Tory administration would summon back 16-year-olds for their re-sits. And that's about all that sticks with me. Oh, and they want to do something about internet porn.

Meanwhile David Cameron's lack of preparation for his TV appearances seems to have continued. His campaigning style brings to mind Willie Whitelaw's great comment about Harold Wilson 'going round the country stirring up apathy'.

But then, as Thatcher rightly pointed out, every prime minister needs a Willie.

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