In which we need to talk about piggate

All this week the Daily Mail has been publishing extracts from Lord Ashcroft’s unauthorised biography  of David Cameron, which has included some potentially relatively serious political stuff about Cameron’s knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom status and relations with military leaders for example. However, none of that sent twitter into a apoplexies. The bit that sent twitter over the edge was PigGate. Now if you’ve got this far in life without hearing about the pig, then I very strongly suggest that you look away now. It’s one of those things that, once heard, can not be unheard and, believe me, you’re happier in ignorance.

 

 

Seriously, you read on at your own risk.

 

 

 

Still here? Are you sure?

 

 

 

Right then. Well it was your choice. PigGate, for those who don’t already know, relates to the accusation that, while at university, David Cameron took part in a initiation ritual for some form of posh boy club that involved putting his – oh god, I’m not sure I can even type this – his… erm… gentleman sausage, shall we say, in the mouth of a dead pig. Now let’s be clear this is an entirely unsubstantiated claim from someone who has a major grudge against Cameron. Let’s proceed on the assumption that it’s not true (for reasons of both lack of evidence and really not wanting to get sued.) So, if it’s not true, does it matter?

Well, yes. Unfortunately for Cameron the reaction to the allegation does matter, and, from my very unscientific reading of the twitters, that reaction seems to break down into three basic types:

Type 1 – It’s an uncorroborated rumour. People shouldn’t take it seriously;

Type 2 – Well it was probably just youthful japes and high jinx. Didn’t we all do stupid things at university?

Type 3 – Any one of a range of jokes about ham face and apple sauce.

Type 3 is inevitable. I mean, it’s a rumour that the Prime Minister did adult-fun stuff with a dead pig – it would almost be rude not to make up and share as many off-colour jokes as you can think of. Type 1 is very sensible, and Type 2 is something of a worry, but what none of these reactions do is rely on the notion that the idea of the PM engaging in the sort of ritual suggested is simply implausible and unthinkable of such a fine and upstanding chap. And that, I suspect, is at the heart of Cameron’s public image problem.

Let’s be realistic – Cameron doesn’t have a BIG public image problem. He’s won one and a half general elections, and has already said that he doesn’t plan to lead the Tories into another. All he needs to do is maintain sufficient popularity to be able to choose his time of departure rather than be pushed. But Cameron’s personal public image is all tied up in the idea that he’s a new Conservative. He’s the Conservative who can be trusted with the NHS, because he knows first hand what it’s like to be the parent of a severely disabled child. He’s the Conservative who cares about ‘hard-working people’. He’s spent a lot of time trying not to be seen as an old Etonian rich boy, even thought that is absolutely what he is. And the lack of disbelief around the PigGate story suggests that he hasn’t quite pulled off that particular smoke and mirror trick.

And that is, potentially, damaging in a way that it probably wouldn’t be to a politician like Boris Johnson. Boris has never tried to downplay his fundamental hooray Henry-ness, so stories of him Bullingdon-clubbing it up fit with and reinforce a public image with which he’s comfortable. Cameron runs the risk of looking like a man who’s not really at ease in his own skin. And that’s never been a problem in the past because he’s been in competition with opposition leaders who made personal discomfort into a national spectator sport. Gordon Brown trying to do a relaxed smile or Ed Miliband shouting ‘Hell, yeah’ were moments of inept image management that turned the six o’clock news into something to be cringe-watched from behind a cushion. All Cameron has ever had to do before was look more at ease than that. But, during the Labour leadership election Jeremy Corbyn certainly looked entirely comfortable with who he is – whether the Labour party publicity machine allows him to retain that or media trains him into oblivion is yet to be seen, but looking inauthentic is, potentially, Cameron’s Achilles’ heel, and it’s not one he’s been punished for so far.

In which I think about PE at school and try not to succumb to the trauma

So, the Olympics is all over bar the politics, and it’s time to get back to normal telly. The nation is sharing a communal “just back from holidays” feeling where our two week refusal to tear ourselves away from the tv and do laundry or buy sensible food is coming back to haunt us. Mundanity is back with force.

The Olympics haven’t just provided a distraction from normality for us little people though. Our lovely politicians have also had a nice break from boring stuff like the economy and how we used to have a health service. All of a sudden all a politician wanting a picture in the papers needs to do is pop on a Team GB baseball cap and make a pronouncement on how bad we are at teaching PE in school. We are into a period of political PE inflation.

David Cameron kicked off be announcing that what we needed was a more competitive ethos in school sport, a cultural change, no less.  It was quickly pointed out that the current government had actually cut the previous requirement that children do at least two hours of PE per week, but Cameron was quick with his response. The requirement had been cut in recognition of the fact that some schools were not teaching Proper Sport. Some children were doing things like Indian Dance, on which Cameron commented, “Now, I’ve got nothing against Indian dancing classes but that’s not really sport.” This from the Prime Minister of a country that won two golds and a bronze in Horsey Ballet. Now I’m not criticizing the Horsey Ballet – so far as I’m concerned any day when a horsey pirouettes to songs from the Lion King on my telly is a good day – however, we probably can’t afford to be too draconian about the question of what counts as Proper Sport.

Since then we’ve had a kind of sport in schools inflation. Boris Johnson, I think,  managed to win the prize for the most pro-PE politician, when he announced that two hours per week was insufficient and children should be doing two hours of school sport per day. It’s not instantly clear where the rest of the business of education fits into this timetable, but then we’re all going to be athletes and shot putters don’t need to be able to count or read, do they? Of course, that was Boris, so it’s not entirely clear that two hours per day is what he meant. It’s perfectly possible that the data being transmitted from the Mother Ship simply became corrupted and mangled the distinction between hours, days and weeks.

All of the above somehow misses the point. Actually there are two points and it misses both of them. Firstly, we’ve done quite well at these Olympics. This presents an opportunity to get more people enthused about sport. It doesn’t obviously suggest that everything we’re doing at present in the teaching of sport is wrong. Secondly, it fails to ask what the point of PE in school is. Is it to breed new generations of elite athletes or is it to encourage an exercise habit and promote health? There’s no reason that it can’t be both, but if it’s only about elite competitive sport, that screws over the fat kids, the slow kids, the unco-ordinated kids who get turned off exercise for life and grow up into fatter slower less co-ordinated adults. I went to schools with a strong emphasis on competitive sport, and I was terrible at it. I was a podgy child. I’m not a natural catcher or thrower or jumper or runner, so I went through PE in school being not good enough. My favourite PE lessons were those where the teacher abandoned any pretense of involving the whole group and let the fat girls “field deep” (a schooldays euphemism for “sit on the grass and make daisy chains.”) I was probably twenty-seven before I worked up the courage to even enter a gym or go to an exercise class – and imagine my delight when I discovered that plenty of forms of exercise are not competitive. No-one loses. Why was I not told about this earlier?

So, if you’re a politician who likes to pop on your Team GB polo shirt and wander around the Olympic Park like you actually helped in some way (you know who you are), probably the best bet would be to actually talk to some elite athletes about what they need to reproduce these levels of success, and then, maybe, get on with doing that. It’ll probably be very boring and to do with funding and coaching programmes and not very much to do with primary school PE at all. Then, you can leave the primary schools to concentrate on getting children excited about sport and exercise and, if they enjoy it and it gets kids moving, why not a bit of  Indian Dance?