Alistair Beaton, a Glaswegian, a writer and sometime speechwriter to Gordon Brown, is sitting in the media pen in at the Tory party conference in Birmingham.
“I’m a playwright who does a bit of journalism,” says Alistair by way of friendly introduction. I’m a journalist who does a bit of playwriting, but nothing like the brilliance of The Trial of Tony Blair or A Very Social Secretary, his satire of David Blunkett’s affair with Kimberly Quinn.
Alistair is here to research a comedy on the Tories that he’s writing for the Old Vic in London, where he lives.
The trouble is that sitting next to a playwright everything on stage takes the appearance of an artifice.
When the entire shadow cabinet troop on as background to William Hague’s speech it takes some time to convince yourself that Alistair’s play is not just writing itself in front of your eyes. More than half of them are unrecognisable so they must be extras in one of his creations. It’s a bit like the Pirandello play, Six Characters In Search Of An Author.
There’s a pause for a scene change. When the stagehands carry on a small, high table with a glass of water resting on it you think - my goodness it’s Dave Allen next. Actually, it’s Dave Cameron, the Geilgud of the Conservatives, who comes on to do one of his now famous unrehearsed monologues, the value of which is somewhat diminished by repeat performance.
The biggest cheer of the afternoon was saved for the Tories’ A list star, London’s own Boris Johnson, flush from his first run at a riverside theatre next to the Shakespeare’s Globe. Flashbulbs sputter, shutters click furiously, Tories rise to their feet for someone who has proved they can win big.
It is all meat and drink to Boris, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. He milks it forever until he realises he is in danger of having a Mo Mowlam moment, except with a better chance of a Bafta for hair and make-up.
Upstaging the leader wasn’t even in it. Foolishly David Cameron was in the stalls for the performance, reduced to non-speaking part with perhaps a chance of being glimpsed on camera. Boris had come to do “I came, I saw, I conquered” but he might as well have read the lines he rehearses in the mirror each morning: “I come here to bury Dave, not to praise him.”
Instead he paid tribute to fellow performer Arnold Shwarzenegger, who had been baffled by the Baffling One at the Tory conference in 2007 “This guy is fumbling all over the place,” the Californian governor was heard to say during a Johnsonian ramble, not realising that he was hearing Boris at his best.
“It was a low point to have my rhetorical skills criticised by a monosyllabic, Austrian, cyborg,” sighed Boris with that self-effacing humour that took him to City Hall and, should a routemaster bus do its duty on Cameron, could take him further still.
In spite of Arnie’s doubts, and tension up to the final reel, Boris was able to report that Ken Livingstone was “terminated”.
This is no time for triumphalism, said a beaming Johnson, as he paraded the successes of his first few months as London mayor and shamelessly plundered the credit for some of Ken Livingstone’s best ideas. He changed the Tory script, proving his seriousness, when he said he doesn’t recognise Cameron’s “Broken Britain” just a big problem - 27 kids have died violent deaths in London this year.
By now Boris was method acting away from his brief, slamming the government for regulating the City, saying the City Hall element of the London council tax will be frozen next year and claiming the 2012 Olympics will cost not a penny more, not a penny less.
When he said that I knew what I’d been watching was a fictional drama. Exit Boris stage left, pursued by a video camera.