Seaside small talk caps a wet weekend

Image of Matthew Engel

It has been a wet weekend of a premiership, taken all in all, so it was an appropriate note on which to finish.

Always a brave choice: the east coast in early May. And this was a day of bitter wind and scudding showers, with the beach deserted and white horses out to sea, though not the flying pigs Gordon Brown needs to remain in Downing Street beyond the next 72 hours.

It makes sense to enjoy the perks right now, and on Monday he summoned up a helicopter, which in terms of the fun aspects of the job must rank No 1 – above even swimming at Chequers and sacking home secretaries. The main purpose was to go on walkabouts (or, as they are known outside election campaigns, walks) by the waterfront in Ipswich and the seafront in Yarmouth – two Labour marginals, both locally presumed lost.

Mr Brown was also launching Labour’s “seaside manifesto” and the appointment of Duncan Bannatyne, entrepreneur and television personality, as the “seaside tsar”. The aim apparently is to pep up struggling resorts such as Yarmouth, though I like to imagine that this tsar would have his own secret police force to ensure no one overstayed their time on hired deckchairs.

Feodor II lasted six weeks as master of Russia before being strangled in 1605, which seems to be the shortest reign of a tsar so far. Mr Bannatyne cannot expect to last that long. “I think I prefer the term ‘seaside champion’,” said John Denham, communities secretary.

The walking went quite well, for once. Through either good luck or good staff work, Mr Brown dodged the bad weather. He seemed entirely unaware of this. We groundlings stood and waited for him in Ipswich through a particularly vile downpour. He descended from the sky and the sun came out (a Blairish kind of trick).

He then walked along, shaking hands and adding completely inappropriate meteorological bromides. “Lovely day, isn’t it?” “Nice day, isn’t it?” “Look at the weather!” None of the Ipswich party faithful, who were alerted to his visit in advance, or the handful of bystanders who had caught his visit by accident, were impolite enough to tell him he was talking rubbish.

It is curious that this politician who supposedly has no small talk is happiest at elections talking as small as possible. He asks young mums how old their children are; he quizzes little boys about their football teams; to elderly ladies, he talks tosh about the weather.

He does his utmost to avoid discussing his supposed strong point, policy – even more so, I suspect, since his infamous meeting with Gillian Duffy, whose name they will find engraved on his heart. “What about petrol prices?” a man shouted. “I’m trying my best,” Mr Brown replied, moving on hurriedly.

In Yarmouth, he was just as lucky with the weather, and even luckier with the audience. Again, the sun came out in the nick of time. The natives seemed friendly and the hoots from motorists sounded short and friendly, not long and irritated. Outside, a toddler sat on his father’s shoulders, chanting over and over: “Hello, everyone, and how are you today?” Which was a pretty fair imitation of Mr Brown.

He looks remarkably chipper, actually. But occasionally you catch the odd word that makes you realise he does understand he is staring into the political abyss. “I’m fighting for my life,” he told supporters, “and I’m fighting for the future of this country.” The Hollywood Cinema in Yarmouth is showing The Last Song.

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