Waiting for David

Who was the kung fu panda? What's a pillow menu? These were the questions keeping Tories awake at co

Tick after tock, the long, long wait for David Cameron's speech began on Saturday night. Some of us had forgotten why we were here: surely another argument for conference duration to be halved. The Tories should lead the way next year.

In Birmingham we exist in a rather cosseted way. The exhibition centre has a small connecting bridge to the conference hotel, so it is quite possible to stay here for five days and not emerge outdoors at all. The outside world appears to be collapsing. Much safer in here with room service and friends.

Between Saturday and Tuesday at 11am, there was very little happening. Conference delegates were openly admitting to one another that they were quite bored. Everyone understood it was not going to be a wild, exhausting week this year - but, faced with rationed fun, the smallest hotel bar ever and only a small dose of Boris to look forward to, Tories can get irritable. Below, the highlights of the first few days.

Sunday evening in the hotel's packed, six- people-deep bar "Pravda": An overweight, bearded moron claimed to the mild-mannered press officer Ramesh Chhabra that he had been jostled. Fatso erupted at Chhabra with a string of expletives, yelling that he was going to "*%!*7 your %£!~** face". The listless bar mass thought this was the start of something. Cool as a cucumber, Chhabra sighed, yawned, then ordered two Diet Cokes and a gin. Show over.

A conference organiser was overheard remarking how pleased she was that the trendy exposed plumbing vents in the hall "match the party's branding colours". "And all completely by chance," she added chirpily.

Sarah Palin hairdo count: six. (Harder than it looks: you need at least three children passing you kirby grips)

There was a potential meltdown when Cadbury's, which had put bulging goody bags of chocolate in the hotel rooms, ran into a spot of bother. On Monday, as bored delegates munched bars of Bourneville, the evening news reported 50,000 ill from Cadbury's chocolate. It was then reported that this was in Taiwan. Excitement over. Have another Fruit and Nut bar.

Sunday evening: A speaker called Nick Bourne appeared on stage with a large comedy Elastoplast over one eyebrow. He apologised to the audience for looking like "Kung Fu Panda". Heartened by the sympathetic laugh he received, he went on to explain it was because of a "shower incident" the previous week. Nobody bought this. He should have left it at the panda gag.

"Boris": At the mere mention of his name, the party faithful sit up straight, exchange knowing looks and beam with joy. When he spoke on Sunday it was impossible to find a seat. Political editors and Johnson's own team fought to get into the hall. Sitting in the gods, looking on proudly, were his mayoral campaign press officers Katie Perrior and Jo Tanner. They looked like hopeful parents watching their Tourette's son in a Nativity play.

Monday evening: MP in packed bar (Pravda again) complained that the adult entertainment film in his hotel room was rubbish. Had he watched it? No, but he had seen the first free 30 seconds they allow and concluded it wasn't going to be a good one.

Some delegates were left confused at a central Birmingham boutique hotel. On check-in, they were offered a "pillow menu". Many thought this would be something rude. It wasn't - it was literally a menu of pillows. Housekeeping confirms that Nine out of Ten Tories prefer duck-down.

Monday am: Conservative Home's Jonathan Isaby approached the glorious Ed Vaizey MP to compliment him on his smart polka-dot tie. "Thank you," Vaizey replied. "It was a gift from Michael Gove." Labour, take note: this is a party in unison; they stand together, they buy presents for one another. David Miliband should buy Gordon some gloves or a scarf.

Sarah Palin hairdo count: six. (Harder than it looks to achieve. You need at least three free-range children passing you kirby grips.)

Even though there were great speeches from Boris, knockout delivery from Liam Fox and a measured address by Michael Gove, it did not feel like a conference until it emerged that Cameron was going to make a short statement on the economy on Tuesday morning.

Before he came on, the pin-ups Jeremy Hunt and Grant Shapps entered the buzzing hall, strutting in time to the Girls Aloud track "Call the Shots". The atmosphere was building. News that Hunt may or may not be engaged to "a Chinese girl" has certain members of Conservative Future weeping, ripping up Bride Magazine and wailing: "It could have been me." (A bit like in 1969 when Paul McCartney married Linda.)

Cameron appeared with no fanfare. The speech was short, to the point and rather moving. He nailed it: David looked like the big guy. He took the long way off the stage, walking back, then left, taking his time. He needed to make this speech. In these terrifying times, the delegates knew they had chosen the right leader and they had faith: the standing ovation he received was based on trust. But will those not in this bizarre conference ecosystem feel the same?

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State