Magazine article The Spectator

Why Ministers Can't Play Away This Season

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Ministers Can't Play Away This Season

Article excerpt

IT WOULD have been asking a lot of a New Labour apparatchik to turn up at the 47th Berkeley Dress Show, the event which heralded the start of what is still called the Season a couple of months ago. Watching 20 girls masquerade as models - their arms plump, their teeth only just tamed by orthodontic discipline - does, after all, require a degree of nerve. Worse, it also requires a certain tolerance of frivolity.

Therein lies the problem, one which becomes more apparent as the Season unfolds in Year Three of New Labour: frivolity - especially public frivolity - simply isn't on. Ascot, the Chelsea Flower Show, Goodwood these are all things that intrude on the lives of other people, but not, according to the New Labour script, on those of The People, so they are spurned. (An exception might conceivably be made for Wimbledon, though only to urge on the helpfully photogenic Tim Henman.) Robin Cook, an ardent racegoer, for some reason (Kosovo?) makes no appearance at Royal Ascot, though he has received numerous invitations to do so. Could this have something to do with the event's 'social' aspects?

Labour whips are issuing the sort of edicts once put out by MGM studios to control the behaviour of their starlets. They have forbidden their MPs to drink in public. According to magazine photographers, the creatures of New Labour adhere to the edict with barely a splutter of dissent. Those who resist are anxious not to be recorded doing so. At the party which opened the Royal Academy's Monet exhibition in January, Gordon Brown, Sue Nye (the Chancellor's office manager) and Nye's husband, Gavyn Davies, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, graciously agreed to be photographed on one condition: on no account, they made plain, were they to be pictured with glass in hand. A few weeks later, at the Observer's spring party at the Commonwealth Club, the Sports Minister Tony Banks, a creature of instinctive exuberance, hid his glass behind his back whenever a photographer came into view.

This is, of course, a means by which to reinforce the impression of Labour as austere, purposeful and professional, especially in comparison with its seedy, self-indulgent Tory predecessors: abstinence in public equals probity and restraint in office. Repeat often enough, and Ron Davies's birdwatching arrangements/misadventures on Clapham Common will be erased from memory.

Away from flashbulb scrutiny, our leaders do shrug off the straitjacket of self-denial from time to time. Neither Gavyn Davies, recently enriched to the tune of 33 million by Goldman Sachs's initial public offering, nor Sue Nye is teetotal, nor do they expect their guests to be. The writer of a profile of Gavyn Davies mentioned a visitor to the Nye/Davies house in Clerkenwell who recalled that `on walking through the door, the first two people [she] spotted were Tony Blair, grinning over a glass of white wine, and Peter Mandelson, flat out on the sofa'. This is encouraging.

Until the end of August, one or two free spirits like Lord Bragg, and thespians of tender conscience like Timothy West (a lobster thermidor man to the tip of his toothpick) and his wife Prunella Scales, will even reconcile themselves to the elitist tyranny of Glyndebourne. They remain, though, brave exceptions, even though the Season, as it now exists, might have been invented for New Labour, having nothing to do with the provision of eligible young men for girls of good pedigree, despite the noble efforts of Peter Townend. The elderly former social editor of Tatler, he is a character blessed with a wry haircut, a north-country accent and a 'list' of those eligible young men and women whom he considers appropriate for introduction to each other.

It is, instead, largely a celebration of the cult of money, new and corporate money, its participants invariably snug in a sponsor's marquee, barely distracted by the hum of the generator in the caterer's tent. It is usually harmless, occasionally benign, with occasional dollops of cash going to charity: the Dress Show, for example, raised about 20,000 for the NSPCC. …

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