Half an hour's exposure to last week's Tory conference – a few minutes attending to News at Ten sound-bites, a few minutes watching the eager faces assembled on the platform – was all it took to divine that the coalition government has a single major liability.
The liability is its Chancellor, George Osborne. This is not, it should straightaway be said, Mr Osborne's fault. Or not quite. Of his economic nous, however unpromising the odds, no definitive judgement can yet be made. It may be that, four years down the line, when the accounts are reckoned up and the public sector borrowing requirements re-examined, Mr Osborne will have done us all proud. No, it is all to do with his personal manner.
For a start, in a Cabinet that parades its youthfulness like a series of campaign rosettes, Mr Osborne has the misfortune to look older than he actually is. Then there is that faint air of shiftiness that hangs over his appearances at the podium, like a businessman reading from a false prospectus who hasn't quite the chutzpah to carry it off. Then there is that supercilious upper lip, curling away like a pork rind in its packet. Mr Osborne, not to put too fine a point on it, looks like Flashman eyeing up a scullery maid, or the Duke of Ditchwater being informed that the under-gardener has struck for higher wages.
How many times, I wondered, watching the Chancellor do his stuff, has my private landscape suddenly been obstructed by the onward march of Mr Osborne and his kind? One has seen them stalking across college quadrangles. One has sat in high-windowed rooms in EC2 with them while they laid down the law. One has shared flats with them, and endured squalid arguments over vanished milk bottles. And now one of them is Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This is not a frivolous complaint. Politicians, by and large, are judged on the personal impression they make. It was Kingsley Amis who suggested that the explanation of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn's failure to reach the top of the political tree was "surely obvious. They both look barmy."
I can remember back in 1992 watching the unveiling of the technology that allows viewers to comment on political speeches by increasing or lessening the pressure on the button at their side: no sooner had Neil Kinnock opened his mouth than the dissatisfaction rating began to climb.
The reason so many people liked Sir John Major and the late John Smith is that they resembled the popular conception of an old-style bank manager: courteous, mild-mannered, reassuring. To go back to Mr Osborne, one notable feature of this week's conference reporting has been a tendency to refer to him as an Old Etonian, whereas in fact he went to St Paul's. This is a very bad sign.
The reverse side of the Osborne gambit could be found in the lashings of press coverage devoted to the debut of former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing. A lesser personality might have attracted ridicule. Ms W, to no one's surprise, was generally applauded for being a sport and giving as good as she got with bantering judges. It was later estimated that viewing figures for the new series' first instalment jumped by a million when she took to the floor. Unlike Mr Osborne, Miss Widdecombe has made the best of what sophisticated observers of the political scene might regard as a middling-to-bad hand. Some of her listeners may not like what she says, but in an era where most political discourse rests on a determination not to give offence, her plain speaking tends to be regarded as a virtue.
In the days when Miss Widdecombe was shadow home secretary, and getting newspaper headlines of the "Doris Karloff" variety, I witnessed her arrival backstage at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. The staff, youngish and left-leaning, looked queasily on. Their guest, on the other hand, stumped amiably about and strove to make friends. "She's very personable, isn't she?" formerly hostile critics began to mutter. "How very nice to meet you, Miss Widdecombe," I remarked to the great lady (who may even have patted one of my children on the head) when we were introduced. "Both my wife and I have read your novel." And so we had. Rachel, then working at HarperCollins, had declined to make an offer for it; I had then had some fun with it in The Spectator. Even this little difficulty, though, was smoothed over by the paralysing glare of Ms Widdecombe's high good humour. Strictly Come Dancing might be a step too far, but Mr Osborne has to find a way of projecting his sensitive inner side to a suspicious public.
Several newspaper tributes to Sir Norman Wisdom, who died this week at the age of 95, mentioned the extraordinary esteem in which he was held by the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. In Britain, he was promoted to the ground-down movie-goer as a kind of political icon, or, as one of his obituarists put it, "a depiction of the exploited worker against the ruling classes, the underdog who triumphs against capitalist evil". Needless to say, all this was news to Wisdom, although he appears to have enjoyed a post-Hoxha trip to Albania, where he was mobbed by adoring crowds.
All this seemed to confirm a truth that sometimes gets lost among the bromides about art being a "universal language", which is that particular national and ethnic temperaments are capable of the wildest misinterpretations. There is a wonderful scene in Evelyn Waugh's early novel Black Mischief (1932), set in the African state of Anzania, in which some advocates of birth control find their propaganda woefully misunderstood. A poster of a fly-blown shack swarming with malnourished children is taken as a vision of earthly paradise: a second poster, showing a well-appointed home with a single infant, is seen as a terrible warning – "rich man no good: he only one son". In much the same way, the first Russian readers of the Grossmith brothers' The Diary of a Nobody (1892) are always thought to have regarded Mr Pooter as a tragic figure straight out of Chekhov.
According to a survey commissioned by Windows Live Hotmail, Britons are increasingly short on quality time. Of those Londoners questioned, 13 per cent claimed to work 60 hours a week. Half the interviewees in jobs said they brought work home. Amid a riot of disagreeable statistics about job-related dreams (one in five) and insomnia caused by work worries (75 per cent) the country's most frenetic city turned out to be Norwich, whose citizens manage, on average, a mere 45 minutes of "me time" per day.
Ignoring the claims of local pride, which insist that my own locale has to be top of every chart going, all this struck me as decidedly odd. Nine years' recent experience of living in Norwich suggests it is one of the most laid-back places on earth. Its Saturday afternoons, in particular, when the county comes in by bus and car to drift around the city centre and queue up uncomplainingly outside Pizza Express are a sort of object lesson in the art of the desultory saunter.
Perhaps, on the other hand, the city really is a maelstrom of seething tension and urban angst, and it's only the 18 years previously spent in pell-mell London that makes it seem such a placid, semi-sylvan island of tranquillity. Like the Russians and Mr Pooter, one man's sink is another's swimming pool.
The book I most enjoyed reading this week was Letters to Monica, Anthony Thwaite's splendid edition of Philip Larkin's correspondence with his long-term girlfriend Monica Jones. Perhaps "enjoyed" isn't quite the operative word, as Larkin's end-of-tether miserabilism can sometimes be a bit of a strain ("Whenever will life take a turn for the better again? How can it?? I shall never find anywhere quiet ....")
At the same time there are some startling vignettes of younger persons who stray into the Larkin orbit. I was particularly taken by an account of the 21-year-old Martin Amis, Larkin's godson, turning up to lunch in Oxford with his father, Kingsley, and stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard: "He looked and behaved like Mick Jagger, but was curiously good about offering his cigarettes round and standing up when EJ joined/rejoined the company, so there may be some good in the lad." All of this is a bit of a blow for those of us raised on the legend of Amis the surly young iconoclast. On the other hand, Larkin does then worry about the advisability of inviting him to dine at All Souls, where he was then a visiting fellow, on the grounds that "stiff cocks wd upset the table".Reuse content