Enjoying a spot of hit and run with John Major

It will probably not surprise you to learn that when I am required by infernal HM Revenue & Customs to state my occupation, I usually plump for “professional backgammon player”. This is, in part, for want of anything better to write and, in part, because I toyed with the game in my early twenties in order to supplement my student grant; and, gratifyingly, I wound up as one of the top dozen players in the world.

To succeed at backgammon requires a flair for probability, an understanding of the basics of human nature, and considerable bottom. To make serious money at backgammon, you must also have a gift for persuading people to act counter to their best interests. Last week, I exercised that gift.

And how! Never, in all my backgammon-playing days, have I seen a more foolhardy decision to roll the dice than that which occurred in Committee Room 14 on Monday night. I remember once, at the Clermont, having achieved consecutive gammons against some sheikh or other, I was delighted when, following much talk about bad luck of the dice, he demanded we double and then treble the stakes. But the most reckless sheikh in the world would have hesitated to play double or quits if he had managed just 15 per cent of the vote, lost in Wales for the first time in over a century, and let the BNP in through the back door.

No such flies on Gordon. “No doubt I have much to learn,” he admitted, before promising “to play to my strengths”, reaching for the tumbler and rolling the dice (probably registering a two and a one, given his luck). And his party cheered.

This outcome spoke volumes for the effectiveness of the manipulation going on behind the scenes. First (see last week), we saw to it that Darling went nowhere. Second, we let it be known that the Tories were disappointed with 27 per cent of the vote, that both parties had failed, and that it was all down to expenses. A piece of spinning which is plausible only if you ignore the fact that the combined Tory-Ukip vote was a respectable 44 per cent, a mere 28 percentage points ahead of Labour. Yet the PLP fell for it H, L & S (hook, line and sinker).

In the midst of the mayhem, I was fortunate to spend the afternoon in John Major’s box at the Oval for a spot of hit and run. He was in fine fettle, being particularly sympathetic to the difficulties I am having in energising Ken Clarke. Apparently, when he was Major’s chancellor, the Fat Man was so lazy that during darts matches he would demand that his parliamentary private secretary recover his arrows from the board and tot up his score. And that was when Ken was in the prime of life.

The Blair years were hard on John, for the comparisons were bound to be harsh. But Brown has been a boon, every criticism reminding us that the so-called Grey Man should not be underestimated. Major has always been highly regarded in the City for his deft and calm handling of the 1990s economic crisis, and was far more popular in the country than the press ever gave him credit for. Indeed, in these shrill times there is much to be said for someone unflappable.

If Osborne were to be pushed under a bus, I asked him, might he return as chancellor? “Anything for the party,” he replied. And neither of us was joking.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!