George Osborne is an interesting person.
Wait, don’t turn the page. In person, he is more self-deprecating, humorous and charming than his image as the nasty benefit-cutting, bedroom-stealing Chancellor suggests. He even – bear with me on this – has a sensitive side.
This is what his friends say. And we have evidence, of a sort, now that Mr Osborne has joined Twitter. Among the 42 accounts the Chancellor is following, alongside the IOD, CBI, FSB and BCC, Christine Lagarde and Bill Gates, is @globe_pics, which tweets “the most beautiful, crazy, stunning pictures of this earth”.
On Budget Day last week, @globe_pics tweeted a picture of a fat squirrel. How odd Mr Osborne’s timeline must have looked that day – all those desiccated tweets commenting on his Budget measures, suddenly interrupted by a picture of a fat squirrel sticking out like a – well, you get the point.
I wondered whether Mr Osborne had made a mistake, or whether one of his aides had followed @globe_pics for a laugh. But then, on Saturday, Mr Osborne tweeted a picture of Freya, the No 11 cat, climbing out of the Chancellor’s red Budget box. The Chancellor got the hang of Twitter very quickly by posting his very own lolzcat.
On the face of it, Mr Osborne’s tweet was a stroke of genius. Not merely unpopular in the real world, he is vilified on Twitter, and all the swearing and death threats must be quite difficult to deal with. In the face of all that abuse, he has tried to win people over with a cute picture of a cat. This is admirable; touching, even. But why do our politicians feel they have to turn into teenagers to reach out to voters?
It is not just Mr Osborne. His opposite number, Ed Balls, tweeted during The X Factor and regularly updates us on his latest culinary achievements, often live-tweeting as the lasagne or child’s birthday cake is in the oven. And although it later emerged that it had been written by an aide, Ed Miliband’s infamous “Blackbusters” tweet when Bob Holness died last year showed the perils of politicians trying to be down with the kids.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy uses her account effectively in her campaign against loan sharking, but wades into teen territory by tweeting about her love of indie music and hatred of Coldplay. Michael Fabricant, the Conservative MP and party vice-chairman, made a lewd joke on Twitter during the Eastleigh by-election – when he was supposed to be in charge of the Tory campaign – and uses the word “Luv”. He’s 62. I may be guilty of some childish tweets myself, but I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “Luv”.
There are also the Twitter accounts run from Government departments. Michael Gove’s special advisers, Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete, have never denied contributing to the controversial @toryeducation account, which dishes out ad hominem attacks to anyone who questions the Education Secretary or his policies.
Mr Gove’s much-heralded enthusiasm for an unfettered, free press appears to stop at the door of any journalist who dares to criticise him. Shouldn’t Mr Gove have sufficient confidence in his policies without needing his personal attack dogs to go after any critics? The language, from people who are supposed to care about good education, is infantile. @toryeducation acts like an abusive teenager who really needs to be put in detention.
It is no wonder that Lynton Crosby, Mr Cameron’s hard-nosed election mastermind, is trying to get Conservative MPs to restrict their tweets to sensible policy or constituency-related content. But it has so far had little effect.
Contrast the behaviour of British politicians with those in the US. Barack Obama and his team tweet only serious messages, occasionally using the site to attract RTs for support pledges. The quality over quantity method is effective: Obama’s “Four more years” tweet accompanied by a picture of him hugging Michelle was the most retweeted message ever – 811,000 times. On Monday, the day that David Cameron unveiled a tougher immigration policy, the Obama account, by coincidence, tweeted a poster of the President with the words: “Immigration makes us stronger. It keeps us vibrant. It keeps us hungry. It keeps us prosperous. It is part of what makes this such a dynamic country.”
After claiming that “too many tweets might make a t***”, Mr Cameron belatedly joined Twitter last year. He and Mr Osborne have worked out how useful social media can be to broadening their appeal. Perhaps they see how easily Boris Johnson can engage with young people by himself acting younger than he is.
But Boris is Boris – we expect him to behave like he does. For Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, the medium is right, but the message is wrong. We don’t want banter and lolz from the Prime Minister and Chancellor – this debases the office. We want clear tweets about what they are going to do about the economy.
But, as we all know, Twitter can be addictive. It is surely only a matter of time before Mr Osborne tweets an off-duty photo of himself – a selfie, in Twitter parlance. And then, I’m afraid, I will have to block him.