When I was young and green and happy as the grass was long... I used to make people laugh with my little bottle of helium. I'd turn the valve on, suck in a lungful of the stuff and utter a great sonority in the funny duckling quack that the inert gas produces. "In my craft or sullen art" always caused a roar, as did: "And Death shall have no Dominion!" The comedy came in part from the fact that one never really knew why people were laughing - you can't hear the helium yourself.
Poor George Osborne suffers from the helium effect. How we long to hear him say "symmetrical inflation target" in his funny voice. Goodness knows where he keeps the bottle. You may have seen the front page of The Daily Telegraph last week with his name in the lead story: "George Osborne rules himself out of Tory leader race". I'd ruled myself out of the Tory leader race without any such attention. "You silly clot," you want to say to me. "You are in no position to lead the Tory party." It's no good saying that to me, go and say it to Squeaky George.
Yesterday, he stood up in front of the dispatch box for the first time as the shadow Chancellor. He took a deep breath and began to quack. He began with a few jokes. He used the words "Notting Hill" in some sort of comic setting. He said the Chancellor "very rarely uses the word 'humble'. Perhaps he came across it when he was looking up the word 'hubris' in the dictionary".
No one laughed. But why would they? It was a terrible error. He needs much more helium! It's very hard to hit the Chancellor. Seven shadows have tried and all have failed. You've got to get above the Chancellor to attack him. You need height. But then you also need depth and George is a bit young for either.
Ken Clarke is the only opposition to have scored off the Chancellor (and that was some years ago now). He congratulated Mr Brown for certain successes in the first term; he attributed them "to the spending limits which I had set in place. He did very well to stick to them because I wasn't going to myself!" A vein began to throb in Mr Brown's temple. Mr Brown hasn't been successfully patronised by any Conservative spokesman since then.
David Cameron made his own departmental debut the day before. According to Hansard he did very well - his speech had both charm, grace and sincerity. One can imagine saying the same even if one had seen him deliver it. Can one imagine him leading the Conservative Party? Considering their desperate state, I think one almost can. Can one imagine him as Prime Minister? Oh, I think we'd need something stronger than helium to imagine that.