Sketch: A tall Story
Once an Olympic rower, now the Conservative candidate for Wakefield, Alex Story is one of the 2010 campaign’s larger-than-life characters.
He completely dominated Wednesday lunchtime’s hustings event in Wakefield cathedral. Even before the event began he was in charge, shaking hands enthusiastically with audience members while the Lib Dem candidate sat meekly in his seat. This was not just because of his height, which is somewhere in the region of seven or eight feet (this may be an exaggeration). His oversize personality was what won him the limelight.
The Labour incumbent Mary Creagh (pronounced Kray, as in Reggie) arrived just on time. “She’s making an entrance!”, the Dean of the cathedral said excitedly, with an air suggesting this was the most exciting thing that had happened in this building since the 13th century.
Creagh was the only one wearing a rosette; the men preferred to demonstrate their allegiance by sticking to party-coloured ties. She laid out “the change we see” in a Gordon Brown-esque list of government-inspired achievements. After her Liberal challenger explained why he was a “genuine credible alternative”, Story – the man who presumably was a fake credible alternative – stepped forward.
Literally. He was not content to stand behind the table separating him from the audience. Instead he slowly advanced towards the pews, positioning himself centre-stage. This gave him the tactical advantage of being completely oblivious to the Dean’s anxious fidgets every time he went over time. It also allowed him to express himself in full Story-vision.
“Right,” he began portentously. “My name’s Alex Story, I’m your Conservative candidate.” The voice was plummy, with just a hint of the French accent from his youth in Fontainebleau. It was a voice as suited to Saturday Kitchen as politics.
What followed would, if replicated in the Commons, make those Hansard writers sit up and take notice.
There is no point ornamenting these quotes. They are best presented as they are, pristine and untouched, like fragile specimens gazed at by curious tourists from behind a glass screen.
On immigrants: “They’ve got to buy into our traditions, our language, our glorious history… I really love this country, I have it tattooed on my heart.”
On the Tory approach to small businesses: “If you water the ground, the flower will grow.”
On economic policy: “We float on a sea of absurdity in this country.”
What proved so compelling was the delivery, the ornate twiddling of the fingers, like an especially bad-tempered conductor. The audience were not always keeping time with him, which made Story wave his arms around even more.
He appeared to have forgotten he was in a cathedral. “Jesus!” he said at one point. “In the last 17 years house prices have risen so much!” The Dean studiously ignored his blasphemy, but the attendees I spoke to afterwards certainly hadn’t.
Earlier he had raised religion in another context. When tackling manufacturing, he began by telling us about one of his favourite former prime ministers. “John Major – God bless his soul. He’s not dead yet, but I thought it was the right place to say it.” Incredulous laughter followed.
The same reaction was achieved when he discussed the first-past-the-post electoral system, which Story supported because it’s “alright” and also because of “self-interest”.
“I want to throw a hand grenade – a rhetorical hand grenade, because I don’t have a hand grenade in the room…” Was he deliberately seeking to sabotage his own sentences?
Creagh’s contributions were mere intermissions while Story gathered his breath. Throughout she remained composed, simply wrinkling her nose or raising an eyebrow as her challenger made his more entertaining remarks. Only once did she show real passion.
“I’ll definitely do a campaign on dog dirt,” she said, her eyes shining with anti-canine zeal. “Because I am sick and tired of slipping and sliding my way through our fields with my children and coming home and spending 20 minutes poking at shoes with a stick and trying to get the mess out. That is completely antisocial.” We learned her heart breaks when she sees people “picking up dirt after their dogs”. While unconfirmed, politics.co.uk is strongly of the suspicion that Creagh is a cat person.
This show of fantaticism did not alienate the congregation, if they can technically be called that. By contrast Story got a bad reception, facing near-constant head-shaking and the occasional heckle. Who knew older individuals could be so hostile? “Answer the question!” they muttered. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard such rot in my whole life!”
“Politics by comparison is relatively easy,” Story told me afterwards, when comparing it with his Olympic rowing career. “There’s no physical pain. You don’t have people as big as you competing against you. And in the end the desire that I had to represent [Britain in] the Olympic Games is matched by my desire to win in Wakefield.” Is any task too big for this Boris of the North?