Christina Patterson: Game, set and match to the posh PR boys in power

The Saturday Column
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A man who's paid more than 50 grand a week finally gets a ball in a net and we're ecstatic. A millionaire son of a baronet tells the nation that it's about to be slashed to ribbons, and we all think it sounds like a jolly good thing. A tennis match goes on for about as long as the war in Afghanistan, and we all think it's marvellous. Gosh, these are strange times.

But then we're always pathetically grateful when the sun is shining. The sheer relief of exposing flesh that looks as though it has spent a lifetime in an Austrian cellar and watching it turn a livid, throbbing pink, buying food that we can actually eat outside, and generally doing things – lying around in parks, smiling at strangers – which are more often nostalgic fantasies of a thing called "summer" than any kind of reality, has given the nation a massive oxytocin rush. Perhaps we're all seeing the world through rosé-tinted glasses, but this week, at least, it didn't look too bad.

I didn't watch the football, or the tennis. I didn't watch the Budget speech either, apart from snippets on the late-night news. Instead, I listened to it on my iPod in a pub garden. It was, I have to say, an experience which underlined the wisdom of the succinct response in Educating Rita to an exam question about the staging problems presented by Ibsen's Peer Gynt. "Do it," suggested Susan/Rita, "on the radio." On the radio, there was no sheen of youth to remind you that you might have to work till you were 70, but it would, from now on, be for people who made you feel 100. There was no poncey haircut. There was no sneering face. There was just a voice, a voice which had miraculously metamorphosed from a whiney squeak to the reassuring tones of a grown-up. A voice, one might almost say, of a statesman.

"This emergency Budget," said the statesman, in a tone that suggested close acquaintance with the work of Gina Ford, "deals decisively with our country's record debts." And for the next 59 minutes, in sentences of Carveresque brevity, and even sometimes Carveresque clarity, he set out how the grown-ups were going to clear up the mess that the toddlers had left behind. He, unlike his predecessors, would "speak plainly", and without burying "hard choices" in "the small print". There were a lot of "difficult decisions", but they were "unavoidable", because there was "no money left". He would have loved to continue the great spree at Toys R Us, but "sadly", very sadly, "the country can simply not afford it". He was sure we'd understand. Like good parents everywhere, he'd been "tough", but he'd also been "fair".

And yes, even a toddler could understand it. It was a triumph. It was a tour de force. Poor Harriet did her best to suggest that this was a Budget that would wreck jobs (and the Labour one, with its 60-odd billion of planned cuts by 2015, er, wouldn't?) but you couldn't help feeling that her heart wasn't really in it, that as she'd been sitting there, taking it all in, she'd been fighting the urge to nod. More VAT all round, probably for ever? Excellent idea! Tax cuts for millionaire entrepreneurs? Brilliant! Chucking people out of their homes as an "incentive to work". Why not?

We knew, of course, that George Osborne had, like a previous rather influential Tory, been seeing a voice coach to help him lower his voice. But where did this come from? His first public outing, at the Mansion House, after months of self-inflicted purdah (this is a man who knows an electoral liability, even when it's his own face) wasn't bad at all, but this was something else. He had clearly been taking lessons from a master.

He had, we can only assume, been taking lessons from David Cameron. For ever since that touching ceremony in the Rose Garden, we have been in the hands of a PR virtuoso. Never mind Carlton, what this guy was waiting for – what we were all waiting for – was for the account of Broken Britain Inc to be handed over to a professional. Someone who spoke, and wrote, clear English. Someone who understood – in relation to past army failures, present army losses and international jamborees – the consummate importance of tone. Someone born to do this stuff, and who, by the way, makes his accident-prone coalition partners look like special needs students on work experience.

Will it work? Will this massive throw-a-dice-and-hope-for-the-best experiment of cutting out the dead wood, and then some of the live wood, and then nearly all the wood, in the hope that wood will eventually grow back, work? God only knows. It appears to be a matter of blind faith, with deep conviction, and much moralising, on both sides. Will the coalition last? I suspect it will. And this lovely feeling of we're-all-in-it-together and aren't-the-posh-boys-doing-well?

Well, let's see what happens in October, when the real cuts are announced, and then next spring, when public services are slashed by a quarter. It's quite hard to take in all this malarkey about not mending the roof when the sun is shining, when the sun is actually shining. But the sun, as Brits know more than anyone, won't shine for ever. This is the calm before a very, very big storm. And that's even without the Battle of Bloemfontein tomorrow.

How are the mighty, and the Merkels, fallen

It's nice, of course, that Australia now has its first woman prime minister, but I feel terrible for Kevin Rudd. One minute he's the most popular prime minister for 30 years and the next he's ousted in what journalists like to call "a bloodless coup". Rudd was the good guy. The first thing he did when he became prime minister was sign the Kyoto treaty. The second was to apologise for the aboriginal "stolen generations".

In recent months, it had all gone a bit pear-shaped, with the shelving of a carbon trading scheme about which many Australians didn't give a XXXX, but which unfortunately fostered (sorry!) the impression that he was a bit of a big girl's blouse. On Wednesday night, flanked by a grim-faced wife, and a teenage son who looked as though he'd just lost his iPad, he gave a farewell speech. "We have thrown our absolute all at this," he said, in a voice that sounded as if it was about to give way to a howl of anguish. It was a study in torment. It was The Raft of the Medusa.

Watching the fall of Rudd, and the painful metamorphosis of Angela Merkel from Queen Midas to parochial procrastinator, and of Obama from silver-tongued saviour to sulky ditherer-in-chief, you can only conclude that, outside North Korea, political popularity is a commodity with built-in obsolescence. Cameron should savour his now.

You swing if you (weirdly) want to

Last week, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommended that primary school children should be taught about sex. Next week, perhaps it should suggest compulsory sex education for the over-40s. According to new research in the Netherlands, more than half of over-45s diagnosed with an STD are swingers. "Potentially," said Dr Nicole Dukers-Muijeres, writing in Sexually Transmitted Infections (not one you see in Tesco next to Grazia), "they may act as an STI transmission bridge to the entire population."

Well, call me old-fashioned (call me Ann Widdecombe) but it all sounds rather unpleasant. I've always thought that there was something embarrassingly unerotic, embarrassingly banal, in fact, about a roomful of adults sweating in skin-tight plastic, and sporting funny collars, chains and plug-in (yes, I'm afraid so) tails. Do you do the deed (with a stranger! In front of everyone!) while making small talk about your son's GCSEs? Do you invite people back? What do you tell the babysitter? And what on earth do you do about refreshments? It's an etiquette minefield, and clearly a health one, too. Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll stick to Jane Austen.