Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Duncan Refuses to Drop His Knickers

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Duncan Refuses to Drop His Knickers

Article excerpt

Mr Alan Duncan, the Conservative transport spokesman, announcing in the Daily Telegraph his candidacy for the party leadership, was quoted as likening the Tories' situation to Marks & Spencer's: '. . . a fantastic brand in good times, but if you have a lousy CEO and lousy knickers you don't do well, and like M&S we need both a good brand and better knickers'.

The vivid analogy aroused a certain disapproval among the party's primmer spirits. Whereupon Mr Duncan used it again a few days later. Anyone falling asleep to BBC Radio Four's indispensable World Tonight - falling asleep not because of the content but because of the lateness of the hour - would have heard him explaining again that the Tories were just like M&S and 'we've just gotta have better knickers'. Mr Duncan was simply refusing to let knickers be, so to speak, dropped.

I sought the opinion of Mr Francis Maude. He is the dynamic new CEO of Cameron & Osborne, the high-street giant which is in a takeover bid for the Conservative party against Davis's, the so-called 'people's chain'. Mr Maude was previously marketing director of Portillo Modernisings. Then he had a brief stint in charge of Lansley's. That was before it controversially rebranded itself as Reform Lansley's, and went the way of Ratner's. So Mr Maude has had enormous experience in this highly competitive market. He was kind enough to invite me to a board lunch held as usual at Inclusive, the fashionable gay Conservative disco in Netting Hill.

'We at C&O are delighted that Alan has raised knickers,' Mr Maude said.

Mr Osborne: 'I beg your pardon?'

Mr Maude: 'Sorry, George, I'll rephrase that. We're delighted that Alan has emphasised the relevance of the knickers analogy to the kind of conservatism which alone can appeal to the centre ground and make our customers buy our knickers - by which, of course, I mean our policies - and not those of the Liberal Democrats.

'But, in order for that to happen, our knickers - by which I mean a shift away from an obsession with low taxes, immigration, asylum-seekers and Europe - have to be modernised.'

Does that mean, I asked, that the knickers would be, for example, less or more frilly?

Mr Maude: 'It is not a question of less or more frilly. To us, these are outdated labels. What is important is that the knickers should cover the centre.'

Mr Boris Johnson (a non-executive director): 'Er, well, yes, but not all the time. There must be room for a shift to left or right as the situation demands.'

Mr Maude: 'Absolutely. Flexibility is important. It would be the same with boxer shorts.'

Mr Cameron: 'What, on women?'

Mr Maude: 'If women want to wear them, I don't see why not. I hope we can get away from the time when the Conservative party wanted to straitjacket women.'

Mr Johnson: 'How the hell did we get from putting women in better frilly knickers to putting them in straitjackets and boxer shorts?'

Mr Osborne: 'Because we have to cover all fronts.'

Mr Maude: 'Including Y-fronts. Let's not forget the voters who wear them.'

Mr Johnson: 'Very few of them are women.'

Mr Cameron: 'You should get around a bit more, Boris.'

Mr Maude: 'Precisely. I think the term is "butch women". The Conservatives cannot afford to forget about them.'

Mr Johnson: 'Cripes! …

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