Friday, October 07, 2005

When Quentin Horse was the dark hogg

I contributed another Armchair Conference column to Liberal Democrat News this week.

The right horse

Political conferences say something important about the parties that hold them. Twenty years ago I spent the summer working for the Liberal Party’s conference office. It being the old Liberal Party, naturally that office was housed in two semi-converted narrow boats moored deep in the Leicestershire countryside.

So what does Brighton tell us about the Labour Party?

Tony Benn was made to wait hours for his pass. Austin Mitchell’s digital camera was seized and wiped. And delegates even had sweets confiscated (though that may have been Ruth Kelly’s influence).

Then there was Waltergate – the manhandling and expulsion from the hall of Walter Wolfgang for his mild heckling of Jack Straw. The attempt to elect Wolfgang as the nation’s favourite pensioner in place of the Queen Mother would not survive a study of internal Labour politics. When I was working on those narrow boats Walter was happily voting against the idea of Labour CND opposing Soviet nuclear weapons too.

But his misadventures – in particular the way anti-terrorist laws were used against him – shone light on the way new legislation is being used to suppress legitimate political protest. In Tuesday’s Guardian George Monbiot listed a raft of similar cases.

Over it all presided the prime minister. The problems with Tony Blair go further than his graceless apology to Ludwig: “Look, I wasn't in the conference centre at the time.” For he has reached the stage every politician does in the end: he resembles his own caricature. It is now impossible to get past the ham acting, the mannered pauses and the curious orange complexion to listen to his arguments.

Under the lights the sweat leaked out despite the thick make up. He looked like a tangerine-hued version of Dirk Bogarde in the last reel of Death in Venice.


Meanwhile excitement runs high in Blackpool. Can David Davis be beaten? Is Clarke too old? Is Cameron too young? Will Liam Horse be a dark fox candidate?

It reminds you of the events in 1963 when Harold Macmillan resigned as prime minister halfway through the Tory Conference. Then Rab Butler was favourite to succeed and Quentin Horse was the dark hogg candidate, but it was Sir Alec Douglas-Home who “emerged” – as Tory leaders did in those days.

Now, of course, they are elected. Whether the people who brought you Iain Duncan Smith will do any better this time remains to be seen.

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