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Greasy Pole: The way they tell 'em

Greasy Pole

One year into his leadership of the Conservative Party, how is Iain Duncan Smith to be assessed? There is unlikely to be any point in asking people at large because so few have noticed him. But what about his own party? They may well feel that the traditional “could do better” does not apply because, no matter how pathetic his showing in the jungle world of politics it is clear that Duncan Smith could not improve on it. And if the leader is so little known what can be said about his team of shadow ministers? David Davis, the man he appointed party chairman, gained some transient prominence as a week-end member of the SAS, which means that on Saturdays and Sundays he can kill with his bare hands. In spite of such spasmodic power he showed some unsoldierly sentiments – like envy. Somewhat peeved at being passed over for the leadership Davis turned his back on all those comfortable theories about loyalty being the Tories' secret weapon and conspired to unseat Duncan Smith. Unluckily for him he did this without a soldier's due regard for camouflage; Duncan Smith observed it all from his bunker and promptly reduced Davis to the ranks.

The humiliation of Davis is not the only sign that Duncan Smith is getting desperate. Is there no policy, no day-to-day issue, he could exploit to get some favourable publicity? In one ill-advised venture he suddenly claimed that the Tory Party would stand up for vulnerable people. The names at Lloyds, currency dealers and property speculators, all anxious about the remorseless daily slide on the Stock Exchange, may have thought Duncan Smith had some good news in store for them. In fact the poor man was only trying to steal a few votes by promising to take special care of anyone struggling to get by on the lower slopes of poverty – the sick, the benefit claimants, the elderly – who qualify in the Tory lexicon as vulnerable (but who have learned to be wary of Tory politicians bearing gifts). So of course nobody with any sense took any notice of what Duncan Smith said, except to apply it as a measure of his desperation.

Platform
Another attempt to convince us that he has radically changed his party was the decision to keep party leaders off the platform at this year's annual conference, banishing them to a place among the lower orders in the body of the hall. Now this was serious. A seat on the conference platform is not just a privilege. It is an assertion of rank, of being one of the elite. It means exposure to the blissful publicity of the TV cameras, being beamed into a million homes leading the applause in the obligatory standing ovations. For the very privileged few it means dosing the audience with great dollops of platitudes, half-truths and tantrums which in combination are called a great speech.

An example of the power of a presence on the platform was at the conference in 1991. On the Tuesday of the conference Margaret Thatcher fumed and smouldered in her hotel room, still smarting from the men in grey suits wheedling her out of the job of prime minister. Watching the proceedings on TV she muttered and moaned about the treachery and impotence of the new leaders; none of them were any good, John Major, for one, was all vanity. On the following day she took her revenge. Dressed to the nines in true Tory blue and displaying her finest jewellery she left for the conference. “I'm not going to make a speech,” she promised, to widespread relief, “I'll just go there.” And “go there” was what she did, taking her place on the platform, which was enough to provoke an ovation from the floor which the leaders she despised had difficulty in bringing to a halt.

Well she was accustomed to holding a favoured place on the platform, to making the kind of speeches so loved by the Tory grass roots that they were a kind of punctuation in her reign over the party. She was accustomed to politically challenged Tories hanging adoringly on her every word, cheering themselves hoarse at every jingoistic allusion and roaring with laughter at every joke, no matter how feeble. They loved it in 1983 when she told them, revelling in her Falklands triumph, that “the spirit of the South Atlantic is the spirit that made Great Britain great”. They brayed with laughter in 1980, when she was under enormous pressure from people who were misled into a belief that governments are able to control the economy, and defied them with these words:

To those watching with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase “the U-turn”, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady is not for turning.”

Speeches
That leaden-footed attempt at humour was not Thatcher's work but that of Ronnie Millar, one of her speech-writers. In fact none of her conference speeches were hers; putting them together was a long, tortuous process and not the spontaneous, heartfelt declaration the conference members assumed it to be. To begin with Thatcher and her staff would spend several months collecting a file of ideas and reports of the speeches of other people. During the summer, as the conference drew near, she asked for contributions from her ministers, sympathetic journalists, advisers and the like. All of this was drawn together at Chequers on the weekend before the conference; draft sections of the proposed speech – sometimes as many as twelve – and big files of background material were laid out on a table and put together. With pieces written to link up the sections she at last had a speech to send the members into raptures. (Not that that had anything to do with the content of the speech; they would have cheered almost anything she said.) Spontaneous it was not – and in any case it was finally read from an autocue.

An essential of Tory conferences (although it is not always achieved) is a show of loyalty. Behind the scenes it is rather different. The leaders usually get only one chance in the limelight and they must use it to assert and defend their standing in the party; otherwise there are always plenty of hopefuls eager to challenge for a place at the top. So every speaker needs at some time to attack the Labour Party and the LibDems, with painfully heavy-handed jokes intended to stay in the members' minds for when the next leadership election comes along. Naturally this can lead to some outrageous clowning. At Brighton in 1957 Lord Hailsham, who was then party chairman, attracted the kind of publicity most politicians would shun by appearing on the beach in the early morning wearing a gruesomely baggy pair of swimming trunks and skipping across the pebbles for a swim. By coincidence this juvenile behaviour was witnessed by a number of newspaper hacks – not people usually known for standing on a cold beach in the first light of day – who kindly arranged for Hailsham's photograph to appear in the press the next day. On the following morning, perhaps stimulated by the media attention, Hailsham seized the chairman's bell and began to shake it violently into a crescendo of sound while he boomed out a warning about the impending doom of the Labour Party. It was buffoonery of the highest order and the members obediently leapt to their feet, stamping and cheering.

Heseltine and Hamilton
A similar rapture greeted Michael Heseltine's 1975 attack on the Labour Party, suitably acted out on stage, as “. . .a one-legged army limping away from the storm they have created. Left, left-left, left . . .” Even opponents of the Labour Party might have regarded such clowning as an excuse for a convincing argument but it did Heseltine's career no harm and to the end of his days as a leader he was a favourite of the conference. And then there was Neil “Cash For Questions” Hamilton, whose conference speech celebrated the fact that Heseltine, who was his boss at the Department of Trade and Industry, had given him the job of overseeing the drive for deregulation. Hamilton's climax had the audience applauding wildly as he symbolically ripped up piles of paper (none of it, it is to be hoped, brown envelopes from Harrods). Heseltine, in blissful ignorance of the future, described this episode as Hamilton's “greatest political triumph”. Well there weren't many others, were there?

An appropriate end to these examples of the unpleasant, if typical, episodes in the history of the mindless jamborees which are Tory conferences is Portillo's raving about the SAS in 1995. Even by the abysmal standards of capitalist politics Portillo must have been extremely stupid, or desperate for attention, to have so much as considered such a speech, which caused enduring damage to his prospects. Ted Heath rumblingly denounced it as a speech which “. . . hit new heights of offensiveness”. But then Heath was by no means a darling of the conference. In 1988, after he had attacked the Tory Eurosceptics, he was a victim of a blatant piece of manipulation by the party officials, who changed the order of speaking so that Jonathan “Sword Of Truth” Aitken was put up to reply, contemptuously adapting Heath's own phrase to describe him as “the unacceptable face of Conservatism”. It was not long before Aitken himself became unacceptable as a minister, as an MP, as a bearer of truth.

A Passing Drunk
In 1984 at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the top Tory brass were staying for the conference, a bomb came close to wiping out much of the government, including Thatcher herself. Among the injured taken to hospital was a man who was clearly not of their class – he had none of the arrogance and the cynicism which are so essential to survival in the world of capitalist politics. So it was assumed that he was the hotel porter and the great and the good of the party came to patronisingly shake his hand and graciously thank and congratulate him for his courage. It is to be hoped that he made a speedy recovery from whatever he was in hospital for because he was in fact a nameless drunk who happened to be passing the hotel when the bomb went off and could not remember why he had been there. The episode was an appropriate comment on the party conferences, for their separation from the real world of analysing and solving society's problems, for their ignorance of what they actually are or how they came to be there or where they are supposed to be going, driven by the intoxication of power. And making the most of it, before the rest catch on.