Last weekend was spent bonding with my colleagues on a Parliamentary Away Day. The location was Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, where Rudolf Hess was interrogated after his capture in the Second World War; clearly a good location for the sharing of political secrets.
These Away Days were started some nine years ago, under William Hague’s Leadership. They were initially regarded by the Old Guard who survived the ’97 Election wipe-out as a dangerous management consultants’ ploy, probably imported by McKinseys from America, involving paint balls and tanks.
Until recently, there was no need for these bonding sessions. The Parliamentary Party saw enough of each other during the week at Westminster without being obliged to have breakfast with each other on a Saturday morning.. We shared rooms together in the House of Commons; conversed in the smoking and dining rooms; and spent long hours into the night putting the world right. We knew more about each other than we needed to.
That has all changed; we have become atomised in our air-conditioned rooms in Portcullis House, watching our email Inbox fill up with emails from constituents messed around by the Child Support Agency and by Working Tax Credits, and from Nigerian widows who want to give us $10 million dollars. (In an ideal world, one could put the two groups in touch with each other) So, today, there is a purpose in an Away Day.
The view of the Press however remains cynical. They are not interested in what we discuss at these week-ends; but in what we drive and what we wear.
The first Away Day was held in Eastbourne. William Hague wanted to change the image of the party, so we were asked not to arrive in our pin-striped suits, but in the clothes which we wore at home. This, it was argued, would enable the electorate to empathise with us. So we arrived in a collection of sweaters lovingly knitted some time ago by aunts, and the Press asked who these weirdos were.
Attendance at these events is encouraged by the usual Channels; absence is allowed if there is a good reason for it, but otherwise one is expected to stay the distance. So, on arrival, I was surprised to discover I was in a Break-Out Group. This carried with it overtones of the Great Escape – “Harry, those forged documents are coming along fine; Johnny, have you got the timetable for trains from Chesham to London? George, you are the Scrounger; see if you can lift a digital camera off the night porter for the photographs on the passports. Watch out, goons outside the cookhouse.”
One things has changed for the better; as the politically savvy will know, the last nine years have not been kind to my Party. So, at these Away Days, in order to boost flagging morale, we would be given the results of Private Polling. These purported to show that, notwithstanding powerful evidence to the contrary implying we were heading for another wipe-out, we were convincingly ahead with swing voters in swing seats who were definitely going to vote. We would soon be grasping red boxes and hailing William, Iain or Michael as the next Prime Minister. This year, we were spared the private polling; and we all hoped the public polls are right.