Mickey Bricks, Prime Minister

One of them won't con an honest man.

One of them won’t con an honest man.

They call it the long con. You find your mark, someone with lots of money and a desire for something they can’t get and a willingness to bend the rules to get it. Then you tell him you know exactly how he can get what he wants. It’ll take time and cost money, but he’s got plenty of both of those, and you’ve got plenty of reasons why it’s going to take a little bit longer and need just a little bit more cash.

He might get doubts after a while of you milking him, and you can cut and run then if you like, or you can double down. Throw him a convincer, something that makes him think you can really do what you say. Sure, it might cost you, but think of it as an investment in keeping the mark happy, and a happy mark is a generous mark so the return on that investment is almost as good as the one you promise your marks.

No con can go on forever. There’ll come a day of reckoning when your mark is going to expect to get what you’ve been promising him, and that’s when all your skills need to come out to play. You need to persuade him that everything’s gone wrong, forces outside your control have intervened and you can’t get him what he wants. The heat’s on you, you tell him, so you’ve got to flee but you promise he’ll hear from you again when it’s settled down. Before you go, remind him how many rules you and he have broken to get this far, just to stop him going to the police if he susses out that he’s been conned. But don’t worry, most of them don’t ever work it out, and you’re free to do what you want with their money now.

That’s all taken from Hustle, but it’s also what David Cameron and the Conservative Party did to Michael Ashcroft. They found their mark, reeled him in, promised him the power and influence he craved, chucked in a couple of convincers (‘Do you want to be Party Treasurer? It’s such an important role.’) but then when push came to shove and the election had been won, it was ‘sorry, I’d love to put you in the Cabinet, but Clegg’s blocked it’.

The only problem is that the Prime Minister can’t close up the shop, throw away all the phones and disappear to a nice hot beach until it’s safe to show your face again. And when you and other teams of grifters have pulled the same con on multiple occasions to the extent that actually giving the mark his prize is almost accepted practice, there’s no way you can stop him telling everyone what you did.

Con men are lucky creatures, though. Sure, you’ll face pig jokes wherever you go for the rest of your life, but maybe that’s better than being remembered as the con man who actually managed to sell democracy to the highest bidder.

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Career opportunities

With almost ten years of blogging experience behind me (and just typing that makes me feel old) I think it’s time that I found some ways to cash in all the time I’ve wasted on it to make a quick buck. Sorry, what I meant to say there was ‘utilise my extensive cross-platform social media communication skills to monetise my experience and provide a variety of value-added activities to my valued clients’.

The problem, of course, is that I’m not shameless enough to even attempt some of the con tricks that others use as a business model. As a councillor, I’m regularly bombarded with invitations to conferences on important policy issues, all of which appear to be the opportunity to spend several hundred pounds to sit in the poorly ventilated ‘conference suite’ of a mid-market London hotel while someone reads out a PowerPoint presentation of easily downloadable information at you, as the precursor to a limp ‘discussion of current challenges’ (aka ‘tell us what other issues we might be able to sell you a conference on’). If I was savvy and soulless enough, I wouldn’t be complaining about these, but creating my own company to do the same.

Rather than set up a company to do this, I could do it in the name of a think tank instead. That way, not only could I establish spurious conferences, I could publish reports and discussion papers on topics that were in no way determined by whoever wanted to sponsor me, and with robustly independent conclusions that just happened to coincide with their needs. I could even give something back to the next generation by creating a Junior Associate programme that would teach them all the skills they needed to be effective policy professionals, including the best search terms to put into Google, important errors to avoid when copy-and-pasting and just how much you can get away with charging people for admittance into this exclusive programme.

Has anyone founded the Michael Stone Institute yet? A few years ago, myself and another blogger (whose identity I’ll protect unless they’re happy for it to be revealed) did discuss creating a spoof ‘Straw Man Institute‘ with the promise that we’d ‘make the arguments no one else will’. We thought there’d be a ready market amongst commentators and other blowhards. ‘SMI (a noted liberal think tank)’ would happily have provided reports on why everyone in Britain should be forced to be gay Muslims for Peter Hitchens to bloviate against.

I think the project foundered on two problems. First, we didn’t have the enthusiasm to carry it on beyond the initial idea, and second, the market was far too skewed by existing companies. There’s no point in advertising yourselves as being willing to make the arguments that no one else will, when there are plenty of people willing to do that and actually mean what they say, often for free. When we’re living in a world where Demos not only has a ‘Progressive Conservatism Project’ but its director can write what amounts to ‘Iain Duncan Smith must destroy the welfare state in order to save it’, what hope is there for a mild and humble parodist to make a living?

In a world where an internet get-rich-quick mogul can make it into the Cabinet, I suppose I need to rebrand myself as an expert in hashtag virality. I can do you a quick seminar for £350, maybe even £250 if you want to use our special early bird booking rate.

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