Major’s success at Blackpool was largely of his own making, says Tim
Sutton, director of Charles Barker
I have always enjoyed the story of the inauspicious arrival on these
shores of William the Conqueror. The poor chap had just landed and he
falls flat on his face on the beach. Probably not the symbol of strong,
confident leadership his Normans were looking for. But Will didn’t
become ‘the Conqueror’ for nothing. Showing his men the sand in his
hand, he said: ‘Look, I already hold England in my hand’.
It was a soundbite Neil Kinnock might have remembered when, some years
ago, he also, famously, fell over on the beach during a Labour Party
conference week. But talk of triumph snatched from disaster leads me not
to the People’s Party, but to the Conservatives’ group therapy session
Like William, the conference started with an embarrassing slip. Losing a
defecting former minister on the eve of battle looked careless to say
the least. Once again the knives were out for the Prime Minister. But we
needn’t have worried, our John has seen off more stainless steel than
By the end of the week, he was once again Major the Magnificent, a man
of vision. Surely, this was a triumph for the spin doctors at Central
Office? I wonder.
For me, the conference recalled the words of Benjamin Disraeli, who once
colourfully described the then Government front bench as ‘a range of
extinct volcanoes’. (Apt then that the PM’s challenger in the summer was
believed to have come from Planet Vulcan).
What is it precisely that PR is supposed to have achieved during this
momentous Conference? After all, by the end of this vortex of spin, we
knew exactly what we knew at the beginning: that John Major is a dogged
politician, not to be underestimated; that Michael Portillo, not
Charlton Heston, should have played El Cid; and that, according to polls
since, the electorate still wants to give up the Conservatives as badly
as some people want to give up smoking. We just don’t know yet if they
can, or they will.
PR people should reject the falsely flattering notion that style can be
divorced from substance. ‘We’re not getting our messages across well
enough’ might just mean that the messages are wrong. In short, effective
spin needs the right ball and the right pitch.
The chances appear slim. But if John Major can remember that, he might
still like William the Conqueror, get one in the eye of his opponent.