When I was younger, I was a member of a debating society. The format allowed for junior members to get some experience and test their mettle by doing somewhat throwaway debates before our seniors and betters arrived for the main event. My first such was “This House Likes Bambi”, or words to that effect; I was speaking against.
The first speaker for the motion stepped up and delivered a very credible speech, amusingly comparing the up-and-coming Tony Blair with his woodland nicknamesake, and generally providing some smug popular fluff with very little content – which was what these debates were for, so I can’t fault him on that. Then it was my turn.
“Ladies and gentlemen”, I confessed, “I only just found out that this debate is about Tony Blair. My speech is useless.” At which point I ripped it up, a very dramatic gesture that made me appear completely in control. And then I panicked. I knew who Blair was, but I didn’t know anything about him; he had only recently become leader of Labour (in a non-thrilling leadership contest I had missed, incidentally, because I was too busy worrying about my A-level results), and in any case Labour hadn’t been important in Britain for almost as long as I’d been alive. I remember concern at school when John Smith died, because some people thought he was the Bishop of Salisbury – the point is that I didn’t have any useful facts about Blair whatsoever. If only I’d read a paper that morning, I might have been able to discourse wittily for five minutes or so and survive unscathed. Instead, I went to pieces, trying to crowbar in phrases from my planned speech, descending to personal attacks, and finally rambling into incoherence. I sat back down in humiliation.
Something similar happened in the House of Commons on Wednesday, after the publication of the Hutton Report. Say what you like about Tony Blair (and I will: he was boring, pompous and arrogantly played to the media and the country for ages when he should have graciously accepted his complete exoneration, and then shut up), the speeches immediately after Lord Hutton’s findings made Michael Howard the loser. Left speaking at a debate whose shape he apparently wasn’t anticipating, he made the expected prepared noise of thanking people he’d rather not thank, before trying desperately to find something to attack Blair over. True, there were one or two – relatively minor – issues he could drone on about, but this hardly seems proper behaviour from someone trying to champion positive rather than negative politics – to say nothing of being insufficiently dignified, robust or moral for such a serious issue. In Labour MP Ann Taylor’s words, he wriggled.
He lashed out at Blair, at Hoon, and at Alastair Campbell, and might have gone further if he hadn’t sputtered out of steam in the face of rising dissent from the floor of the house, and the look of wide-eyed, gaping-mouthed incredulity from the Prime Minister.
After my own disastrous performance, it fell to my debating partner to try to salvage our side of the argument. As it happened, he hadn’t read up on Bambi-Blair either, so he was reduced to apologising for my behaviour, hoping that people might vote against the motion in sympathy. Perhaps I was ill, or fundamentally stupid? Surely I hadn’t just failed to prepare properly for this debate? As it happened, neither of our performances made any real difference to the vote – the debate was not well-attended, and those that were there had opinions on Blair that weren’t going to be changed, no matter what we did. I doubt anyone else remembers it now.
Michael Howard wasn’t so lucky. No one stood up to take his side, no one supported him, and a good number of people attacked him, both directly and indirectly. No chance to walk away from this debating chamber; in a few short, interminable, minutes, Michael Howard threw away his mask of political sanity and revealed an ugly visage of malice and pride. “That is what he says” as Labour MPs fantasised about smothering him. “That is what he says” as if a few short passages of mild criticism could bring down the Government. Like a bad comedian begging the audience when his jokes aren’t as funny as he thinks they are: “Isn’t it? Isn’t it?” “That is what he says.”
When an encounter with Tony Blair torpedoed my debating career, I turned away and found something else to do with my life. Somehow I doubt Michael Howard will have the grace to do the same.