8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 86

Telling the Americans

Petronella Wyatt


Hooray, hooray, I shouted from my present American perch when I heard the news that the nice but ineffectual kin Duncan Smith was being replaced by the nice but effective Michael Howard. I say nice because Mr Howard is nice. My late father once slammed down the telephone on him when he — Mr Howard — was home secretary, and he merely laughed. Later, when my father had cancer, he came to visit him.

It has been a long time since the Tories have had a nice and effective leader. Thus, I thought, the tidings should be communicated to the American nation, It being a delightfully warm day in Virginia, I decided to combine my generosity with a bit of shopping and bar-cum-restaurant crawling. I began with a very intelligent and seemingly cosmopolitan businesswoman who runs a vintage store.

'Have you heard about the Tories?' I blathered gaily. 'The what?' she replied. 'The Tories,' I repeated. 'What are they?' This was discouraging, but I pressed on. 'You know, the Conservative party."Oh, you mean the British Republicans."Well, sort of,' I responded. 'What about them?' she asked. 'They've just changed their leader. I mean they've got rid of the leader and got a new one.'

She was aghast. 'They've got rid of Tony Blair? After everything he's done for the US?"No, his opponent or rather his official opponent. A man called lain Duncan Smith.' She had not heard of him. Well, I don't blame her. There has been nothing in the press about the leadership contest except for a few paragraphs in the New York Times and a quote from Michael Portillo. Funnily enough, more Americans had heard of Michael Portillo. Well, actually I am referring to two, who had been to London. 'Is he the new leader?' said one.

I kept on trying. Sitting next to an expert on British literature at dinner, I told him, too, of the news. He was puzzled. But they can only get rid of him at a general election, surely? I explained this applied only to prime ministers. 'But isn't the prime minister leader of his party?' I was starting to become confused myself. 'Er, yes. But you can be leader of your party and not be prime minister. And you have to be leader of your party before you can become prime minister. I know that doesn't happen over here. I mean the Democrats don't have a leader.'

'No,' he said blandly. `Do you read much Dickens?' This lack of interest in what was going on in my country was becoming galling. A woman in a bar seemed under the impression that Margaret Thatcher was back at the helm. Well, at least she was aware of some sort of change. After hours of research it was clear that not one single person in Virginia had heard of poor Mr Duncan Smith. They appeared to think that Tony Blair leads all our political parties.

The interest in Mr Blair is quite phenomenal. I don't think that the Americans have admired anyone so much since Churchill. Actually, they probably admire Mr Blair more. Politicised Americans think his speech to both Houses of Congress the most eloquent thing they have ever heard. 'Our politicians can't speak.' bemoaned one. 'We have so many illiterate voters that they think it better not to, anyhow.' People find it incomprehensible when I tell them that the Iraq war has dented Mr Blair's popularity. 'But he did what he believed in,' protested the Dickensian. I tried to be waggish. 'Yes,' I said, 'always a mistake in politics.' Unfortunately, most Americans don't find that kind of joke remotely funny.

I had even greater difficulty in trying to make clear who Mr Howard was. It was understood that he was a Member of Parliament for the Conservatives. He had been home secretary in the last Conservative government, I went on. What was home secretary? 'Well, it means that you are in charge of things that happen at home. You have to deal with crime, asylum-seekers, illegal immigrants, and so forth,' A friend of mine was mugged in London,' said the shop lady. 'This man can't be doing a very good job.' I told her that Mr Howard wasn't home secretary any more. It was a man called David Blunkett. 'But if he is not home secretary he can't be the least bit important,' she insisted. 'But he is going to lead the Conservative party,' I retorted. 'Come back and tell me about him when he's president,' she said. At last I had found a philosopher.