Sincerity steals up on slapstick politics, conference tailoring, and voices off at the opera

Rachel Reeves was not being boring, but showing concern for people struggling to pay their bills

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Oh, isn’t Boris Johnson hilarious? We couldn’t get enough of him during the Olympics, with all the zip wires and the zoink, and he’s kept us gleefully nostalgic about our happy and glorious summer of 2012 by carrying on being entertaining. Only last week, Boris told a London Assembly member to “get stuffed”. Ah, his famous way with words – one minute he’s quoting the Classics, the next he’s disarming us with daft terms such as “piffle” and “whiff whaff”. Competing with him this year on the Conservative conference fringe will be Nigel Farage, another of Westminster’s wags, the Ukip leader and beer-mat sage. When so much of politics is predictable and partisan, isn’t it great to have a flash of charisma here, a bit of outspoken rebellion there?

Presumably, this was what Newsnight editor Ian Katz was thinking on Monday evening when he described Rachel Reeves, a guest on his programme, as “boring snoring”. Presumably he was wishing he had Boris on to rollick round the studio, rather than the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury talking to Jeremy Paxman about living standards.

I imagine Katz, a well-connected former Guardian deputy editor whose wife, Justine Roberts, is the founder of Mumsnet, has met Ms Reeves, a rising star of Ed Miliband’s front bench, many times. He well may agree, then, that she is not boring in person, but rather good-humoured company. Or he may not. Yet there is a reason why she is tipped as a future leader – the former chess champion and economist also has an air of normal, woman-of-the-people about her. It is an intriguing combination.

Those in Westminster more used to listening to bland – boring! – RP tones get snooty about her Bromley twang. But I can imagine that in the queues at Aldi, or at the school gate in her constituency of Leeds West, Ms Reeves’s voice and manner go down rather well. So when she revealed yesterday that she felt humiliated at what Katz had tweeted – particularly in her first week back to work after having a baby – this was a very human response, not the behaviour of a political automaton. In my first week back after maternity leave, I cried every day – something that, I’m sure, many mothers do. I can imagine this will only boost her popularity, particularly among women.

I will admit that we journalists – in newspapers as well as in broadcasting – don’t want the politicians we interview to be dull. We want sparks to fly, gaffes to be committed, news to erupt from their mouths and on to the page. Watching Ms Reeves’s performance, she was not being boring, I would say, but trying to show concern for people struggling to pay bills. Not dull, but  earnestly authentic.

And there are signs that this is what voters are looking for. For nearly 20 years, the conjurer-politician has been king: Tony Blair’s fizzing oratory, David Cameron’s no-notes stagecraft, the exotic antics of Boris and Nigel have entertained us. But with trust in politics in a death spiral, it is an era that appears to be coming to a close. As I have written before, people are more likely to sign online petitions for single issues than become members of a political party. There’s something about politicians that voters don’t like, and any tricks or sleights of hand are viewed with suspicion.

A poll by Lord Ashcroft earlier this year showed that, while more people thought Boris was likeable and a “people person” than other leading politicians, he was not seen as a serious, capable person fit for Downing Street. Ms Reeves should be encouraged – there is an importance in being earnest.

The clue’s in the dress code

Conference season 2013 has started. The Lib Dems usually coincide with London Fashion Week, which has been unfortunate timing when you consider the bad style image Nick Clegg’s party has had. But I detect that something is changing. My first party conference season was in 2001, when Labour was on top in every way. The party attracted young, stylish trendies. But in 2003, when the sub-plot to the Conservative conference (underneath the main plot – or, rather, plots – against hapless leader Iain Duncan Smith) involved following rising stars David Cameron and George Osborne around the Blackpool fringe, I noticed a new, youthful energy among activists. Women working for Conservative Central Office (as it was called then) wore Diane von Furstenburg dresses, while the young men ditched the ties – two years before Cameron became leader and stamped his tieless brand on the party.

Like the piping of the first song thrush signifying the imminent arrival of spring, the way that fashionable twentysomething men and women begin to populate a party’s conference suggests that change is afoot, a sudden rush of power, or revolution. At the Lib Dems’ spring conference in Brighton earlier this year, I noticed young activists wearing Marc by Marc Jacobs. Song thrushes trilling everywhere. Why would this be so? Their poll rating is tiny, after all. But given that the next election is likely to be a hung parliament again, it is the Lib Dems who perhaps have the best chance of being in government. Armed with field glasses, a magnifying glass and notebook, I will report back at the end of conference season.

Pianissimo, Signora!

I went to see Turandot at the Royal Opera House last week. If you’re not a Puccini fan, it’s the one with “Nessun dorma”, the aria made famous by the BBC’s title sequence for Italia 1990, sung by Pavarotti. Having seen the Italian composer’s final opera a few times (but never performed by Pavarotti), my heart is always in my mouth when the tenor reaches this point. I think everyone in the auditorium is on the edge of their seat thinking, “Is he going to be as good as Pavarotti?”

So imagine the horror in Covent Garden’s upper amphitheatre on Monday, when, just as tenor Marco Berti hit his high B on “vincerò” (on the old BBC title sequence clip on YouTube, it’s the bit when Maradona hurdles a wild Bulgarian challenge), a woman in the row behind me started singing – and not very well. Yes, madam, I mean you in seat K53. None shall sleep? None shall relax, more like.

twitter.com/@janemerrick23

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