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20 October 2003

The tortoise pulls a hamstring

IDS was gaining on the Labour hare. But a "dossier" then undermined his only political asset. By Que

By Quentin Letts

One of the many reasons to love the Conservative Party is its commitment to politics as a public entertainment. Those new Labour ghastlies with their Darth Vader grimness are so self-targeting and dour. As the past few days have shown, it is left to the Tory hierarchy to make us suck in a gulp of helium from their party balloon and run out into the street to squeak our joy at being alive these precious dawns.

Woodentop leader makes achingly self-conscious speech (but actually quite brave, given his oratorical shortcomings) to his party conference in Blackpool. His main thrust is that the Prime Minister is a liar, a slippery sprat, a man with morals as loose as a Devon dairy herd’s stools.

It’s punchy, it’s politics-by-the-lapel, it’s up close, personal and growly. The London media hoot, but the electorate may not be quite so sneery and slick. A poll in the Mail on Sunday shows the opposition nosing ahead in the polls. Tortoise overtakes hare shocker.

But then the tortoise, if this is biologically possible, pulls a hamstring. Or, to change images, Snoopy had just loop- the-looped the mighty Red Baron only for his gallant Sopwith Camel to blow a gasket and cover its pilot’s smiling face with spurting oil. As the cackling Manfred von Richthofen roars overhead, greasy-cheeked Snoopy is in a nose-spin, heading straight for what John Prescott would call “terracotta”.

As I write, this is roughly the state of play. The full denouement of the IDS “sleaze” allegations must wait three weeks while the parliamentary standards wallah, Sir Philip Mawer, conducts his investigations. I say “at the time of writing” because this current Conservative Party melodrama is moving so fast that by the time I have even reached the end of the next paragraph there may well have been a change in fortunes.

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For all I know, Michael Portillo has, by the time you read this, returned from Turkey, ripped off his holiday fez and declared, in that choky baritone, that he is ready for action.

Back to the present, however. The drippy-looking Vanessa Gearson, a lank-haired Central Office operative with slightly sad, Duple Coach eyes, was caught sending an e-mail about IDS. In it, she referred to secretarial monies paid to his wife, Betsy, aka BDS.

You could observe that to include the words “Crick-style investigation” and “financial arrangements” in an e-mail that was being sent to well-known friends of Portillo was PDS (pretty damn stu-pid), but that would be to expect senior employees at Tory Central Office to behave like savvy political players. Ha! You naive fools!

Michael Crick, a freelance journalist, was cross, and probably with good reason, when the BBC declined to run his Newsnight story about the BDS expenses rumpus. As long as the libel lawyers were happy, the report should surely have been aired. A Friday Newsnight is not exactly prime-time telly, after all.

Crick’s behaviour since then has been less engaging. He, or at least someone close to the story, disclosed details of its postponement to the press.

We all know that Crick, the camera- hogging queen bee of by-elections, is a very clever man. But what happened next in this saga saw him transformed from star news hack into a political player. So peeved was he by the BBC’s timidity that he took his “dossier” to the sleaze-buster Sir Philip.

Ah, another “dossier”. One of the more reliable rules in political journalism is to pinch yourself hard when encountering the d-word, and count to 100 before taking further action. Dossiers are the stuff of tabloids and lowlife scandal merchants. What Crick, in fact, took to Sir Philip was little more than a slender file of bullet points. A printout. Do let’s dump these “dossiers”.

Anyway, Crick trundled up to Sir Philip’s Westminster offices, oh so casual, trademark shoulder bag slung over his left arm. If there was an air of “how do you want me, guys?” to the TV crews, I am sure that was entirely accidental. But for all the posturing, this PR wheeze, which may or may not retrieve Crick’s working relationship with the BBC, was deadly serious for IDS.

The one thing the Tory leader reckoned he had going for him, as he made plain with his attacks on Tony Blair in Blackpool, was a degree of integrity. To be accused of trousering public funds via some secretarial arrangement with his wife went to the jugular of his slender political appeal.

The paradox is that the Crick episode seems to have temporarily frozen the anti-IDS plotters.

Sir Philip’s decision not to pass judgement for three weeks has bought the Great Orator the best part of a month in which he can justifiably claim that important matters are still pending. The old booby also played a bad hand quite well, declaring his love for Betsy with just the right dose of moist stoicism. Middle England and the association matrons will have liked that.

If Sir Philip dumps on the Duncan Smiths, the Tory leader will be out of Smith Square as fast as a clay pigeon. But if the sleaze-buster unequivocally clears them, it could prove a useful victory, a Clause Fourish moment of triumph against odds that seemed more daunting than they probably were. Any “Portil- listas” who encouraged Crick and his dossier drama would then be left feeling v. chumpish – a condition, admittedly, not uncommon among Her Majesty’s official opposition in recent days.

Quentin Letts is parliamentary sketch-writer for the Daily Mail

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