It is 2012. A press conference in Stratford, east London
Gordon Brown: Britain’s athletes can hold their heads high after our record haul in the British Olympic Games. Never before in the history of the event has our proud nation carried away 40 gold medals.
Nick Robinson, BBC: Prime minister, some people are saying we haven’t done better than previous years but have instead benefited from “grade inflation” in the medal system. What is your view on that?
Brown: This is utter tripe. Our tally is proof of improving standards in athletics and hours of diligent work by trainers and athletes alike.
Newspaper hack: You replaced the bronze medal with a new “gold medal”. You replaced the old silver with “gold star”. And gold is now “gold star star”. Haven’t you just devalued the old system to make Britain look good at sport?
Brown: I believe the facts speak for themselves. While in 2008 Britain made do with a mere 19 gold medals – and in 2004 a paltry nine gold medals – we now have 40 to our credit.
Our new system reflects the very real progress made by our athletes in recent years. Labour has made the entire nation proud whereas the Conservatives would have stood by and done nothing.
Robinson: You degraded A-levels. And now the Olympics. What next?
Alistair Darling: Today, I am happy to announce the conclusion of talks with Standard & Poor’s about a new system of credit rating. Where gilts were once described as AAA or junk status they are hereby renamed as AAAAA* and A*- respectively. This positive move will reflect the very real progress made by our economy in recent years.
I’ve not yet run into Tory MP Desmond Swayne since I started swimming in the Serpentine. That’s because he is there at 7am while I am still asleep.
“Outside the summer months is when you see the real men, when the temperature is 38 degrees in January,” he says. “Now it’s nearly in the 60s it’s not quite the same.”
Swayne says he has on some wintry mornings smashed through layers of thick ice to gain access.
He dismisses the widespread perception of fetid water full of algae and goose droppings. “The water is often pretty clear, there are crayfish and pike, many people don’t realise it is not a lake but the river Westbourne, which flows into the Thames by an enormous tube,” he informs me. “I have seen a rat, yes. It was pretty off-putting.”
Another Tory to enjoy wild swimming was the late, great Alan Clark. In his diary for August 1989 he tells of the adrenaline rush after bathing in a chilly loch at Eriboll.
“One feels incredible afterwards – like an instant double whisky, but clear-headed,” he wrote. “Perhaps a ‘line’ of coke does this also.”
David Cameron would probably not use the same language to describe his own love of wild swimming. “Cameron has a Labrador-like tendency to jump into water, no matter how cold,” says Francis Elliott in his biography of the party leader.
But what of Michael Gove, the arch-Cameroon and shadow schools secretary, who recently wrote of his dream of riding a surfboard – albeit in a typically cerebral manner.
“Reading Tim Winton’s marvellous new novel Breath last week I found myself, for the first time in my life, wanting to try surfing,” he mused in his Times column in May 2008.
“Having read Winton’s descriptions of surfing, I can understand the pull of the waves …is 40 too old to surf?”
Gove is still a surfing virgin 15 months later. “I haven’t had the time,” he admits. “I don’t quite have the poise nor the grace.”
He has though been swimming this month in the bracing North Sea, just off the coast of Aberdeen.
Host with the most
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the departing army chief, has won plaudits for buying £1.49 bottles of wine and Lidl sausages for “entertaining”.
But good value does not always equal happy guests. In the 1980s, Labour MPs Eric Heffer and Joe Ashton would moan about the fare provided by Tony Benn, according to Michael White, the Guardian’s veteran political commentator.
“They were constantly disappointed by his idea of hospitality,” White recalls. “Benn seemed to think all the working classes wanted was a cup of tea and sandwiches.”
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