The Conservative party's "leader" Iain Duncan Smith was on the spot today, giving what everyone said was the speech that would make or break his chances to survive a party mutiny. If that was it, you might think he was doomed already - but the hall screamed with hysterical force every time they were asked to. Just Tory leader worship, or did they really believe it? And if they did, why did they cheer wildly when IDS said "Tony Blair"?
It was an odd speech - IDS began by railing at Blair's "promises", but went on to issue a volley of high-cost promises of his own, as well as devoting several minutes to more promises of lower taxes. Every so often he would attempt a joke or a Telling Take-Home Soundbite - doubtless highlighted with a fluorescent marker on his script so he didn't miss - and botch badly. His speech writers had carefully implanted all the words (promises, acting, spin, tax versus fair deal, honest, asylum) that every Tory has been using once every sentence for weeks (how strange for a party so viscerally opposed to evil Labour spin!) into the text, and probably into his brain too. But it didn't help. He was obviously leery of missing one of those special, non-spin, soundbites and slowed down to sub-GW Bush in advance of each. Then he read it out as if explaining where the toilet was to a very stupid class of schoolchildren, before audibly preening at his own cleverness. (At least he has been cured of saying "Oh, yes!" in a John Major voice at these moments, though.) I suppose he was leaving gaps for applause, but the gaps always turned out to be much longer than planned. There were two reasons - first of all, his delivery was so gauche that the delegates always took interminable seconds to pick up on the fact that they were meant to cheer, giving a sort of anxious hiatus. Then, there was the way he seemed to lose his place afterwards and need time to catch up.
IDS's style appears to copy two examples - John Major and George W. Bush, perhaps the two least impressive orators in the English language. He has Major's odd, dated vocabulary and strange mixture of headmasterish hectoring and mumbling. He has Bush's cringemaking gaps........... between sentences, weird tendency to put a full. stop. after. every. word. and air of not knowing exactly what the next phrase will be. But it's not just that. He even quoted Dubya! That's like Arsenal taking advice on beating Manchester United - from Doncaster Rovers! He actually used the phrase "No Child Left Behind", the mendacious title of Bush's education policy. In fact, he seemed to propose some of the policy too (vouchers, vouchers, vouchers - do they never have any other ideas?). The other thing he found under a Bush was that particular kind of unconvincing machismo. When he said "Get out of the way because WE'VE GOT WORK TO DO!", I felt like saying "You wanna make me?" Probably because he flips from Major to Bush constantly. He began his Big! Dramatic! Showdown! with the party rebels by saying "To thowse who doubt." (His vowels are so Majory that they go over the brink of overenunciation) "To thowse who deliberate! I say this: Don't. work. for. Tony. Blair." Up to this point he was in John Major/headmaster mode, giving very clear directions along the corridor to the remedial class. But after the word Blair, though, he pulled the lever. "Get. On. Board! Or geddouttatheway! Because WE'VE GOT WORK TO DO!", his voice twisting under load into a curious groaning honk. It was meant to be the moment the afterburners were fired and the mighty Duncan Smith thundered off, but it was more like a whoopee cushion with a leak.
It went on, too - through the curious bit when he devoted what felt like an hour to saying how great Michael Howard was (not at all trying to get him not to stand for the leadership. No. Who could think such a thing?) and then immediately made a seamful transition to a Carole Caplin joke. "Michael, I understand that things are not so rosy in the red corner." The hall gaped for long seconds - IDS was back in Majormode and talking like a Speak'n'Spell. Why address it to Howard? What did he mean? Gap. "I've heard the only colour Carole Caplin won't allow in No.10 " - cut off sharply, still robotic. Gap. Now the delegates began to cheer, obviously having been given a cue that one of their hate fixations was coming up. IDS seemed foxed - he hadn't got to the punchline yet! Gape! Then he managed to get it out - "..is Brown!"
Evidently he hadn't heard that Ms Caplin's No.10 security pass had been withdrawn months ago.
He had obviously been heavily primed by Central Office to have a go at the Liberal Democrats. Both big parties have been pushing the line that Charles Kennedy is a joke (a drunk, invisible) hard lately, despite the curious fact that they seem to get steadily more popular. Perhaps people don't like this sort of media-village robopolitics?
Perish the thought. This was how IDS tried it:
A long, corpsing, dead in the West End silence. Finally, someone began clapping ostentatiously on their own and the mob picked up that they were meant to laugh. It wasn't impressive and was clearly heavily managed. Then he did it again! And, dear God, a third time! Finally he got going with some spurious figures, before concluding that Lib Dem ballots "should have an asterisk on saying Warning Contains Nuts!" Oh, yes! But the most striking feature of the whole tiresome farrago was that however vacuous the statement ("Everyone in Britain deserves a fair deal - we must be on their side"), however vicious the sentiment ("On the same day, in the real world, bogus asylum seekers escaped from one of his pathetic detention centres when they should have been deported months ago!"), however blatant the shroud waving ("But these were just a curtain-raiser for this prime minister's blackest act. This government used Dr David Kelly as a pawn in its battle with the BBC. His death was first and foremost a tragedy for those who loved him but it shamed our country - it shamed our whole political system." Does that include the party that wanted war, weapons or not, because Dickie Perle told its leader to?), however unlikely the promises ("This Labour government will never give taxpayers value for money but Conservatives will.
In local government, Conservatives already deliver better services for less tax.
As Michael Howard said yesterday in his excellent speech, Conservatives believe in low taxes - we will always be a lower tax government than Labour!"), however emetic the emotional babble ("And then Gran's on the phone - her operation's been cancelled again. It seems the doctor says he must give priority to other patients to meet Tony Blair's targets. Gran doesn't count!") - they still howled! They yelled and roared! As long, of course, the floor management could cue them in on time.
If you're looking for nuts, you've come to the right place. This lot would cheer anything with a sign saying Leader on it.