Peter Rhodes on conferences, Tarzan and the tiny flukes that make politics so fascinating

In this week of conferences it's beginning to feel a lot like 1997. That was the year when the country got fed up with Tories and voted for Tony Blair.

Michael Heseltine - snarled
Michael Heseltine - snarled

A few weeks before the '97 general election I interviewed Michael Heseltine. The Tory big beast, the man they called Tarzan, was remarkably optimistic about John Major seeing off the Blair challenge.

I asked him whether, after 18 years of Tory rule, wasn't it simply Labour's turn to govern? Hezza leaned forward in much the way that the real Tarzan might lean before biting the head off a mongoose.

“It's not a game of cricket, you know,” he snarled. Although I agreed this was not about balls and bails, the question rattled him. As well it might because politics and cricket have much in common. You try all your best shots but you know that eventually you'll be trudging back to the pavilion.

By 1997 the Tories had had a long, long innings and were bowled out in that unforgettable Blair landslide. Today, we have seen 12 years of Tory and Coalition rule – and the atmosphere feels the same. The Tories have made a hash of things (although nothing as frightful as Blair going to war in Iraq) and Keir Starmer is looking like a PM-in-waiting.

But there the similarities end. John Major was at the end of his parliamentary term and had no choice but to endure a general election. Liz Truss has a couple of years before she has to face the voters. A week is a long time in politics. Two years is an eternity. Who would dream that in a single fortnight Russia would threaten nuclear war, a new prime minister would be appointed and our Queen would die?

A few days before Tony Blair's '97 triumph I bumped into one of his loyal MPs who should have been optimistic but wasn't. “The Tories could still fluke it,” he said glumly.

And that's it. It's the flukiness of politics, the morphing of tiny, unforeseen incidents into gigantic issues, that makes it so fascinating. You bump into a birthday cake and your career is over. One of your supporters calls the Chancellor “superficially black” and who knows how those ripples will spread?

It's not a game of cricket, you know. It's much more fun than that.

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