It is a burden carried by the patrician politician that he is assumed to be a good listener. Recent examples include Douglas Hurd who, as foreign secretary, gained a considerable reputation for being able to look intently fascinated by European or Commonwealth conferences, while all around him spoke in a Babelian clamour. His mentor, of course, was Lord Carrington. He could sit through a thousand sermons without batting as much as an eyelid.
Both, inevitably, were Old Etonians, school teaching one not only how to walk past great architecture without noticing it, but also how to listen. At Eton, where an impressive quorum of the beaks were fellows of All Souls and a handful of one’s peers genuinely gifted, one could sometimes find oneself not being the cleverest person in the room. Should this circumstance befall you, it is wise to keep one’s counsel, rather than open one’s trap and demonstrate one’s own ineptitude.
Dave, through long experience, has learned this. It is our great electoral advantage against motor mouth Brown. The Clunking Fist’s Achilles heel is that, due to the lack of intellectual heft in Labour circles (David Hare, I ask you), he has spent decades believing himself to be the smartest cookie in the room. It is a difficult belief to shake and the PM has not shaken it. You can fill a room with Nobel prizewinners and yet Brown will still do all the talking.
DC, meanwhile, will take notes, a facility he demonstrated again last week at the gathering of the Four Wise Chancellors (Howe, Lawson, Lamont and Clarke) called to determine Tory strategy. It was a spellbinding occasion with Stormin’ Norman and Sir Geoffrey, long forgiven for his part in the Regicide, speaking particularly soundly. Dave filled a notebook.
Owing to gout I was slow off the mark to the buffet and found myself seated some way from the action next to, of all people, an astrologer. This man, the Murdoch in-house soothsayer, or so he claimed, had been invited by Andi (he has forsaken the “y” for an “i” to appear “more vital”) Coulson in order to give “his vibe” as to which of the Four Wise Chancellors was on the money. So far so baffling, and further elucidation was not provided when, being nothing if not polite, I asked him about the state of “his vibes”, only to be knocked back with a shrug. Running short of conversation, I fell back on the old dinner-party standby of enquiring about your neighbour’s line of business: “So, star-gazer, what does 2009 have in store for our beloved party?”
The astrologer stared gloomily, as well he might, at the vegetarian option on his plate. Finally, he looked up from his aubergines and said not, as I expected, “Luck is playing the guitar” but “The death of one leader will provide life for another.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied.
He continued. “From the ashes of disaster will grow the roses of success.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” I replied, and left him to his aubergine platter.
Hours later, at White’s, the astrologer’s words rattled around my brain. What could he mean? Could it be that we all must die and that in the coming year this would include our greatest leader? And then, in the aftermath of the Blessed Margaret’s death, might Dave make a speech that would pithily encapsulate the feelings of a nation? Could, in short, Maggie do for Dave what Lady Di did for Tony?
There was, it struck me, a symmetry here. Before the car crash in Paris, Blair was perceived to be a Bambi. After the required period of national grieving, he was a major statesman. Might Dave, similarly, use the springboard provided by a state funeral to leap from being novice to leader-in-waiting? The heir to Blair transform himself into Thatcher’s natural successor? One can but dream, and we shall see.