‘Would you be interested,’ said the startlingly eager girl at the Birmingham conference centre, ‘in recording a message in the Conservative Video Box?’
God, I was pleased about that. There I was, neither a blond female, nor a read- ily identifiable member of an ethnic minority, and still the flunky reckoned I was the kind of person they wanted on film. It must have been the new suit. It’s grey, and sharp as daggers. You know. The kind of suit you might wear if you are an aspiring young Tory, and Central Office puts you up for a photoshoot in Tatler, which they will then sneeringly disown. That kind of suit. Plus, I shaved off my beard the other week, before I went to the Labour party conference. It’s not flattering at all when the flunkies think you are Labour. Not any more.
‘No,’ I said, all the same. Then I thought about it, and asked what it would involve. The girl, still startlingly eager, perhaps fighting an urge to stroke my cuff, spelled it out. ‘It’s for the website,’ she explained. ‘You go in that box, and you have 30 seconds to tell us why you are a Conservative.’
Tricky. I certainly could have given her 30 seconds on why she thought I was a Conservative. Or I could have given her 30 seconds on why I probably wasn’t a Conservative. Only I’m not sure either of them would have made the website. So I just said ‘no’ again, and I wandered off. And almost immediately I regretted it.
I could have had some fun. ‘I am a Conservative,’ I could have said, deadpan, ‘because somebody has to rein in the Jews.’ Or the libertarian approach, maybe. ‘I am a Conservative because I believe in freedom! And enterprise! And incest!’ Would they run either of those, do you think? Would they put them up on the big screen, just before Dave’s speech?
Perhaps not. Although there have to be some nutters who slip through the net. Well-scrubbed nutters. Nutters in new suits. So back in my hotel room, I sought them out, via Google. ‘Conservative’, I typed in, and ‘video box’ too. Up popped a BBC report. The Video Box, I learned, was ‘one of the innovative new additions to this year’s party conference’. Apparently, people could talk about anything they liked. There was none of this ‘why I am a Conservative’ drivel that they had wanted from me. This was about participation. Ideas. Debate. Have a concern? Air it! For a moment, I felt deeply deceived. Then I noticed the date: 7 October 2002. The Video Box has changed.
I found the new videos eventually, as promised, on the Conservatives’ website. No mention of a Video Box on there, though. They call it ‘the Conservative Wall’. Odd phrase. Another Brick In etc. Wasn’t that wall a bad thing? Each brick is a face, and each face, if you click on it, will tell you in 30 seconds why it is a Conservative face. Each face also appears in front of a backdrop of blue sky and green leaves. Is this deliberately oakish and reassuring? Or are the younger, more photogenic and ethnically diverse bits of the Conservative party actually lost in a gigantic version of the Hampton Court Maze? Perhaps they can only escape if they answer the riddle of ‘why I am a Conservative’ to some sort of guardian sphinxish creature. Perhaps it has the face of Dave and the hair of Boris and the tail of Norman Tebbit.
Their answers, anyway, are all inoffensive enough. Careful vetting there, I would say. No crazies, and no triumphalism either. Because triumphalism is suddenly the big danger, isn’t it? That and complacency. That’s why the Tatler Tories were hung out to dry, in their shiny new suits like mine. And yet just look at the way that the Video Box has evolved. Back in the dark days of IDS, the Conservative party pretended to ask its members what would make them happy. Today, in the bold new world of David Cameron, it assumes they are happy, but pretends it cares why. You can’t be complacent about complacency. It always sneaks out.
I’ve been watching a lot of US television satire in recent weeks on the internet and it is all so much better than anything we have here. Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, all that. And I wonder, when this presidential election is over and done with, and if it goes the way that everybody expects, will this be the first election, ever, that satire has won? Or, to be more precise, will Sarah Palin be the first major politician whom satire has destroyed?
OK, so it’s not all deliberate satire. Palin’s genuine interview with Katie Couric on CBS News, which you must have seen by now, was pretty funny in itself, in much the same way that it would be funny to see Gordon Brown fall off a chair. Were it not for Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey, though, she might have got away with it. Fey was born to lampoon Sarah Palin. The resemblance between the two is startling, and Fey has the mannerisms and the voice spot on. Last weekend, the best bit of her act consisted of a confused monologue originally delivered, almost word for word, by Palin herself. You simply cannot take the one seriously after seeing the other. The world ain’t big enough for the both of them.
A few weeks ago Tony Blair took the stupendously unwise decision to be interviewed on The Daily Show by the great Jon Stewart. It was funny, it was charming, it was friendly, and it was also downright brutal. Nobody, not Paxman, not Humphrys, not Hague, has ever torn the man apart to such a degree. Even when they moved on to Iraq, Blair was too crippled by the thought of being a bad sport to trot out his usual defensive waffle. At one point, Stewart asked him whether George Bush called him up at 4 a.m. to say ‘Dude! Turn on Channel 4! There’s a snake eating an egg!’ Blair smiled, and then looked down at his own smile, and froze in horror.
We have Bremner, and we have Have I Got News For You?, but the two cannot carry the candle alone. More of this sort of thing, and quickly. There is a power in it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008