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Diary

Diary

Alone in a room with the two most terrifying men in my life; my headmaster and my party leader.

20 November 2004

12:00 AM

20 November 2004

12:00 AM

I’m in Sedgefield, County Durham, contesting the nomination for the Conservative candidate who will fight the Prime Minister for his seat in Parliament. I make my speech to the assembled Tories: tax, Europe, crime, education, pensions. Afterwards I go into the corridor and make agonising conversation with the other finalist. I smoke a cigarette. I go to the loo. I smoke another cigarette. They are taking an extremely long time. Eventually the chairman emerges and delivers the verdict. The other chap takes it well, slipping away with a smile and a handshake. The chairman takes me to the pub.

In 1997 Mr Blair promised a low-tax government, to make education a triple priority, and to be tough on crime and its causes. In 2004 people in Sedgefield pay the highest council tax in the country. GCSE standards in English and maths have gone down and violent crime and antisocial behaviour have rocketed. But for all this, Sedgefield remains a lovely place to live. The Dun Cow pub, where I sink grateful pints with the chairman, looks out on to Front Street, up to St Edmund’s church and the village green. Mr Blair brought President Bush to the Dun Cow two years ago, and there are still angry memories of the disruption caused by huge secret servicemen with wires in their ears. I get the encouraging sense that people here don’t want a world statesman as their MP.

I share an old headmaster with the Prime Minister. Eric Anderson taught Mr Blair in the 1960s and me in the 1980s. Eric comes to see Michael Howard to talk about education policy, and I sit in to take the notes (I work in the party’s policy unit). I am therefore alone in a room with the two most terrifying men in my life. I don’t know why I’m so scared of Michael Howard. He is always warm and generous, with easy charm and a gentle yet highly focused manner. I just can’t help it. I and some other parliamentary candidates go to have our photos taken with him for election publicity. A small queue of us forms outside the door. It’s as bad as the old days with Eric, lining up for justice. When the photos come back, they show a friendly Howard and a rigid, rictus-faced me. They’re useless.


I walk to work. For years, driving round Hyde Park Corner, my favourite statue was Decimus Burton’s massive ‘Quadriga’ atop Wellington Arch. Now, as a pedestrian, I have found a better one. In the shadow of Apsley House is a beautiful life-sized statue of David. On the plinth, wreathed in stone laurel, are a pair of stone machine guns. The statue is dedicated to the Machine Gun Corps of the first world war. The inscription reads: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’ We are told that irony was invented in the trenches of Flanders, but this is frightening. ‘Was ever an immolation so belied?’ wrote Sassoon of the memorial Menin Gate — ‘a pile of peace-complacent stone’ — at Ypres. It is the Remembrance season, and last week a wreath of plastic poppies lay at David’s feet. It doesn’t obscure the inscription, though.

On the evening of 1 October, Tony Blair was recovering at Downing Street after a heart operation in London. The same evening, one of his constituents was recovering in hospital after a serious assault in Trimdon. On his way home from buying a lottery ticket, Joe Cunningham was set upon by a gang of youths. The local chemist rang the police, but it seemed to take rather a long time for them to arrive. (There was, of course, a squad of armed officers less than a mile from the scene, but they had to guard Mr Blair’s constituency home from terrorist attack). Once they arrived, the police were excellent, and three people have now been charged with assault. More worrying is the behaviour of Mr Blair. Mr Cunningham’s family wrote to their MP on 3 October to ask about his plans for cutting crime in Trimdon. They have yet to receive so much as an acknowledgment.

Outside the Conservative party, I don’t have a friend who didn’t want Kerry to win. My satisfaction with Bush’s victory, therefore, is sublime. But it is qualified. As an excellent new pamphlet (‘Whatever happened to Compassionate Conservatism?’ by Tim Montgomerie for the Centre for Social Justice) shows, the President has disappointed the high hopes of his 2000 campaign. He hasn’t liberated more than a handful of children from failing inner-city schools. He hasn’t revolutionised social security through the outsourcing of welfare to charities. Compassionate conservatism, in the first term, was more about striking bold poses on issues of personal morality — fornication, foetuses and firearms — than about rescuing poor black Americans from the effects of 1960s sociology. But now he has a fresh mandate. Please, Mr President, deliver us from evil, and me from my friends.

I attend an evangelical church in Marylebone where, I regret to say, everyone is a Bush-basher too. Never mind. On Sundays St Mary’s is packed, 600-strong, with young metropolitan trendies. But it hasn’t achieved this by diluting the Christian message. On the contrary, St Mary’s preaches a firmly orthodox doctrine. But it is entirely relaxed about questions of ritual (there isn’t any), hierarchy (there isn’t any) and dress (on a lot of the girls, there isn’t much). It has kept the substance of the faith and modernised the style. There’s a lesson for Tories here, but I won’t labour it. More importantly, there is a lesson for the Church of England. In the words of the historian Frank Prochaska, many churches, which were once pinpricks of light in the encircling gloom, have ‘blown out the candles to see better in the dark’. The result is that our whole culture is unsighted. But the light blazes forth from St Mary’s, and from Holy Trinity Brompton — the mother-church of the evangelical revival, frequently and ignorantly mocked in this magazine — and from a growing number of other churches where you can see the call of Christ — to be in the world but not of it — lived out in vast and vibrant congregations.

So far as I know, no prime minister has ever lost his seat while in office. A.J. Balfour had just resigned the premiership when he lost Manchester East in 1906. So I have my work cut out. But as this cartoon, kindly drawn by Michael Heath for my campaign, advises, I take courage from David. Also from the Machine Gun Corps.


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