Question Time last night featured Tory bad boy, and granny’s favourite, Adam Afriyie. Gosh he was a spectacle to behold. Coiffed and primped like a Savile Row supermodel, he looked as if he’d spent six months in makeup.
His tailored suit was as smooth as Clingfilm. His hair was a combed flap of silvery darkness. His flawless white shirt was set off by a knotted tie of regal purple that nestled at his throat like a priceless jewel that faraway brigands are plotting to steal. Surely, one thought, this is not a politician. This is a kidnapped prince in a Tintin story.
Afriyie has learned some of the rough-and-tumble skills. Early on he delivered a great biographical quip – ‘I was dragged up lovingly in Peckham’ – which pushed a lot of emotional buttons: family values, tough background, common touch, sense of humour.
He’s got the grey vote in the bag. And the gay vote. And he’s bound to appeal to right-wing seditionists who long for Dave to be toppled in some fantasy putsch.
But he’s an incomplete performer. His slipperiness is far too easy to spot. Asked about his attempt to bring the EU referendum forward to next October, he smilingly declared himself a mere backbencher who wants ‘to let the people have their say’. He reckoned 12 months was plenty of time for a renegotiation. And he predicted that Europe’s leaders, desperate to keep us in the club, would race to Downing Street with baskets of goodies to seal our loyalty. It sounded like the last act of a pantomime rather than the delicate unraveling of a million-and-one long nurtured friendships.
Chairman David Dimbleby asked how would he vote in his own referendum. Afriye hid behind Michael Gove. If the choice were tomorrow, he said, he would vote No. But in twelve months, a different offer may be on the table.
Away from his comfort-zone, he became impulsive and unpredictable. He didn’t quite make a gaffe but he came perilously close. Asked about his leadership ambitions, he responded skittishly.
‘Oh, not that old one, David,’ he said, like a sex-starved cougar being quizzed about a departed toy-boy.
‘I support the prime minister,’ he rasped rather desperately. ‘And I hope he’s there for a thousand years!’
Steady on, mate. That ‘thousand years’ has a strange historical echo.
The discussion turned to the reshuffle and the simmering resentments it might cause. Afriyie floated the peculiar idea that bitterness was entirely absent from the Tory party.
‘Those returning to the back benches will be valued. Those moving onto the front benches will be able to contribute. It’s a vast improvement.’
At whom was this bit of gushy drivel aimed? Nobody. Afriyie isn’t a strategist. Under pressure, his eloquence deserts him and he retreats to his default mode of smirking blandness. ‘Offend none, please all.’ Great for your great aunt’s funeral but not for politics.
As the show wore on, the other participants relaxed. But Afriyie seemed to grow stiffer and more artificial. Perhaps the varnish was starting to dry. He sat at the table, ramrod straight and smiling joylessly, with his arms symmetrically disposed in front of him, like a crash-test dummy dressed up as a statesman for a piece of conceptual art.
His enemies call him a lightweight. Last night he showed all the substance and depth of a bouncy castle. One half-suspected he’d been tethered to his chair to stop him drifting up into the lighting-rig and going pop.
As for the Tory leadership, he’s got more chance of taking over the EDL.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.