It began with the bells of St Asquith’s pealing across the Rutland countryside;
soon spontaneous Morris dancing had broken out on the village green and before
long there were unconfirmed reports of oxen being roasted whole from as far
afield as Marston Trussell and Cropwell Bishop. I immediately took charge of
events, declaring a half-holiday at the village school for the following day and
ordering free pints of Smithson & Greaves Northern Bitter to be distributed to
all-comers at the Bonkers’ Arms.
In short, no one hereabouts will forget the day that Tony Blair announced his
resignation as Prime Minster and Leader of the Labour Party. For my own part, I
have not laughed so much since King Leopold of the Belgians died.
I suffer something of a disturbed night – too mature a Stilton, perhaps? It can
hardly have been the champagne, Smithson & Greaves or Auld Johnston – and scenes
from my past scurry before my eyes: Jo Grimond quoting Napoleon’s advice to his
marshalls that they should march their troops “towards the sound of gunfire” (I
had suggested that he employ Nelson’s “No captain can do very wrong if he places
his ship alongside that of the enemy,” but he chose not to take my advice); my
introducing Bing Crosby to the young Menzies Campbell at a Hollywood party
(“Ming, Bing; Bing, Ming”); Shirley Williams outlining the plans for the launch
of the “SDP Party” – my reaction was “Shirley, you can’t be serious.” Yet when I
awaken and have the curtains drawn it is a beautiful early summer morning and
all is right with the world – or at least with Rutland.
With a number of important fixtures for my XI coming up – notably against Mebyon
Kernow, I Zingari and the Elves of Rockingham Forest – I have been eyeing the
weather more closely than usual. I have consulted seaweed, pinecones and
Meadowcroft’s rheumatics, but the other day decided that a more scientific
approach was needed. So it is this morning that the lovely Siân Lloyd arrives at
the Hall to cast her eye over my observations. Inevitably conversation turns to
the end of her engagement to poor Lembit and she confesses that she could not
face the prospect of being called Siân Öpik as “there would always be something
hanging over me”. I console her with the reply: “Never mind, my dear, you will
always have Powys.”
People complain a great deal about “the nanny state”, don’t they? Well, my Nanny
was always a fount of good sense and would have made a better fist of things
than many cabinet ministers I have come across; certainly, she would have been a
more competent Chancellor than Norman Lamont or Reginald Maudling. I suppose the
point is that we do not like government nagging us about our health. With this
in mind, when asked to mount a campaign in favour of better dental hygiene, I
was careful to choose a public figure whom everyone loves: look out for my
“Brush your teeth like Alan Beith” posters on a billboard near you soon.
It is a fine day and I climb the tower at the Hall to survey the old demesne. My
eye is caught by a figure in the far distance as it follows a zigzag course
across the landscape, falling into a stream here, fighting its way through a
thicket there. Eventually it nears the house and, just as it disappears into
Meadowcroft’s compost heap, I recognise it as none other than the Chancellor of
the Exchequer; I descend the tower to rescue him from my gardener’s ire. I offer
him a cup of tea to restore his spirits and he explains the cause of his
difficulties in navigation: “It’s this compass my father gave me: I think it
must have worn out or something. Every time I try to go north I end up walking
around in circles.” I commiserate with him and set him on the lane towards the
village: a few minutes later he has to be rescued from the moat.
In recent weeks, a number of our most distinguished Members have announced that
they do not intend to fight their seats at the next election – I think in
particular of Paul Keetch, Phil Willis and Matthew Taylor. As a result, I have
been contacted by a stream of keen young activists who want to know how they can
improve their chances of being selected to fight these tempting constituencies.
My advice is generally to establish that you have a local connection: “Tell
them,” I say, “that your family comes from Cornwall; that you have always been
fond of Harrogate toffee; that your mother was frightened by a Hereford bull
whilst she was pregnant with you.” (I fear that in certain cases this last claim
is all too plausible). Some ask if they should also be familiar with the latest
papers from the party’s Federal Policy Committee, but I generally reply that
this will not be necessary.
I see that Alan Johnson has been defeated in Labour’s Deputy Leadership contest
by Harriet Harman, who is some sort of niece of Lord Longford. I can only regard
this as something of a shame as Johnson has always struck me as the best sort of
postman – the sort of fellow who whistles in the street, always closes your gate
and has the sense to leave parcels behind the buddleia if you happen to be out.
Harman is best known for walking out of an interview on the Women’s Hour
programme when it became too taxing, but at least she was following the first
piece of advice I give young candidates when it comes to dealing with the
broadcast media: Always know where the exit is.
Lord Bonkers, who was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10, opened his
diary to Jonathan Calder.
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