Older readers may remember a film which came out in 1956, called “The Man Who Never Was”. Based on a true story, it told how British Intelligence during World War II tried to get the German High Command to shift its forces away from Italy, prior to the allied invasion of Sicily. To create the illusion of a plan for England to invade Greece, a dead body was procured, dressed in the appropriate uniform, dumped in the Mediterranean, and equipped with papers to be found by the Spanish authorities. They would then send the intelligence to the Germans, who would redeploy their forces. It was a good film, starring Clifton Webb. (The part of the corpse in this film must surely be one of the least demanding tasks in the actor’s repertory, requiring neither script to be memorised nor actions to be executed. But he did get a bit wet.) The significance of this introductory paragraph will become clear shortly.
Turning to today, by-elections are like the proverbial London buses. You don’t see one for ages, and then three come along all at once. Last month, Crewe and Nantwich, caused by the sad loss of Gwyneth
Dunwoody, who had a capacity to irritate the Prime Minister at meetings of the Liaison Committee equal to anyone from the Opposition Parties. Next month, Haltemprice and Howden, following David Davis’ resignation. Many of my constituents see this as a commendable stand in defence of an important principle, a few see it as a Reginald Perrin moment. For my part, I hope he wins. And this week, we have the Henley By-election, following Boris’s success in ousting Ken Livingstone from City Hall in London.
I have been twice to Henley to add value to the campaign, and then redirected to some delightful riverside villages, where I expected to see Miss Marples coming round the corner, followed by Chief Inspector Barnaby. The genteel folk I met were suffering from an ailment I instantly recognised. Voter fatigue. After only 10 days of campaigning, their recycling bags were bursting with political literature, their voicemails clogged with messages from Party Headquarters, their gravel imprinted with the footsteps of canvassers, their dogs hoarse with barking at people with rosettes. They had had enough.
At this point, the Man Who Never Was re-appears in the story. While walking round Marples-on-Thames, I came across a piece of literature with the heading “Boris Johnson’s Successor Chosen”. The literature could easily be mistaken for literature circulated by the great national party of which I am a humble member, and whose candidate we confidently assert will be BoJo’s successor. However, on closer inspection - indeed on very close inspection - the literature could be detected to come from Another Party, whose candidate aspired to this vacancy, but with arguably less conviction.
As with the Man Who Never Was, the object was to confuse and divert. To encourage people to believe that something was the case when it wasn’t – to dress someone as up as the genuine article, when he wasn’t.
The Man Who Never Was worked; and, soon, we will know whether or not the Candidate Who Never Was also worked. I suspect not.