Frank Johnson

Why Mr Duncan refuses to drop his knickers

Why Mr Duncan refuses to drop his knickers

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Mr Alan Duncan, the Conservative transport spokesman, announcing in the Daily Telegraph his candidacy for the party leadership, was quoted as likening the Tories’ situation to Marks & Spencer’s: ‘...a fantastic brand in good times, but if you have a lousy CEO and lousy knickers you don’t do well, and like M&S we need both a good brand and better knickers’.

The vivid analogy aroused a certain disapproval among the party’s primmer spirits. Whereupon Mr Duncan used it again a few days later. Anyone falling asleep to BBC Radio Four’s indispensable World Tonight — falling asleep not because of the content but because of the lateness of the hour — would have heard him explaining again that the Tories were just like M&S and ‘we’ve just gotta have better knickers’. Mr Duncan was simply refusing to let knickers be, so to speak, dropped.

I sought the opinion of Mr Francis Maude. He is the dynamic new CEO of Cameron & Osborne, the high-street giant which is in a takeover bid for the Conservative party against Davis’s, the so-called ‘people’s chain’. Mr Maude was previously marketing director of Portillo Modernisings. Then he had a brief stint in charge of Lansley’s. That was before it controversially rebranded itself as Reform Lansley’s, and went the way of Ratner’s. So Mr Maude has had enormous experience in this highly competitive market. He was kind enough to invite me to a board lunch held as usual at Inclusive, the fashionable gay Conservative disco in Notting Hill.

‘We at C&O are delighted that Alan has raised knickers,’ Mr Maude said.

Mr Osborne: ‘I beg your pardon?’

Mr Maude: ‘Sorry, George, I’ll rephrase that. We’re delighted that Alan has emphasised the relevance of the knickers analogy to the kind of conservatism which alone can appeal to the centre ground and make our customers buy our knickers — by which, of course, I mean our policies — and not those of the Liberal Democrats.

‘But, in order for that to happen, our knickers — by which I mean a shift away from an obsession with low taxes, immigration, asylum-seekers and Europe — have to be modernised.’

Does that mean, I asked, that the knickers would be, for example, less or more frilly?

Mr Maude: ‘It is not a question of less or more frilly. To us, these are outdated labels. What is important is that the knickers should cover the centre.’

Mr Boris Johnson (a non-executive director): ‘Er, well, yes, but not all the time. There must be room for a shift to left or right as the situation demands.’

Mr Maude: ‘Absolutely. Flexibility is important. It would be the same with boxer shorts.’

Mr Cameron: ‘What, on women?’

Mr Maude: ‘If women want to wear them, I don’t see why not. I hope we can get away from the time when the Conservative party wanted to straitjacket women.’

Mr Johnson: ‘How the hell did we get from putting women in better frilly knickers to putting them in straitjackets and boxer shorts?’

Mr Osborne: ‘Because we have to cover all fronts.’

Mr Maude: ‘Including Y-fronts. Let’s not forget the voters who wear them.’

Mr Johnson: ‘Very few of them are women.’

Mr Cameron: ‘You should get around a bit more, Boris.’

Mr Maude: ‘Precisely. I think the term is “butch women”. The Conservatives cannot afford to forget about them.’

Mr Johnson: ‘Cripes! Is there anyone the Conservative party can afford to forget about?’

Mr Maude: ‘Certainly not, except of course Conservatives.’

The alleged revelation of ‘Deep Throat’s’ identity has provoked something which always happens whenever Watergate is discussed or comes back into the news. That is, another round of Media Triumphalism.

It was a vigilant media that forced Nixon’s resignation, it is assumed and suggested. As a result of the revelations which Mr Woodward and Mr Bernstein skilfully extracted from that throat, Nixon was revealed as having lied when he said he had not known about the burglary of the Democratic party office in the Watergate building in Washington in 1972, two years before the president’s enforced departure.

But Nixon would have had to resign had Deep Throat never uttered, and had Mr Woodward and Mr Bernstein never put typewriter to paper. Deep Throat gave them much valuable and important information, which they published. But it was information of secondary importance. It linked the burglars to the White House and those planning Nixon’s re-election campaign.

Nixon fell, however, because of what he said on the tapes of his Oval Office conversations. Deep Throat did not reveal the tapes’ existence. A relatively minor functionary, who seemed to have been called to give evidence on relatively technical matters, a Mr Butterfield, did that. He did so under questioning from the Senate committee investigating the Watergate affair. First, Nixon’s congressional opponents demanded that the president produce the tapes. He refused, claiming ‘executive privilege’. In the end, the Supreme Court forced him to do so. One of the tapes contained the ‘smoking gun’. As a result, in the the summer of 1974, Nixon resigned.

It is sometimes argued that the Woodward–Bernstein reporting ensured that the Senate committee persisted in its investigations. But the committee needed no encouragement to do so. Nixon was a Republican. The Senate, like the House of Representatives at the time, had a Democrat majority. The Democrats, like nearly everyone else, did not think that Nixon’s denials rang true. When the Senate committee began its investigation, it probably did not think it would end with the first resignation of a president. But then Mr Butterfield broke the news of the tapes. Now all depended on what Nixon had said on them. His fight to prevent their being published proved that he had everything to fear from them.

The Woodward–Bernstein investigation was to American journalism’s credit. But America’s governmental institutions and the rule of law, in the form first of the Senate committee and then most importantly of the Supreme Court, brought down Nixon.

But it should not be assumed that Nixon was uniquely guilty among presidents. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy indulged in illegal wiretapping of opponents. Kennedy wiretapped, with dubious legality, Martin Luther King. It should be remembered that it was the unmodish Lyndon Johnson who finally ended Southern segregation after Kennedy’s assassination, not Kennedy himself. A journalist close to Kennedy, Charles Bartlett, wrote that Kennedy wiretapped King because King ‘appeared to have links that reached both into the Rockefeller and communist camps’. That would be remembered today had Nixon done it.