Waffle is an essential part of a politician’s armoury. Skilled practitioners can get away with all manner of deceit.
A tumbling clatter of words (a la Kenneth Clarke or John Prescott) can hide vast amounts of uncertainty and mountains of contradiction.
Strategic outbursts of puffing and sighing also come in useful, but the problems arise when wafflers inadvertently stumble (or are steered by unscrupulous interviewers) into the quicksand of facts and statistics.
This is dangerous territory for shallow minds, as Alan Johnson, the Shadow Chancellor, discovered to his cost on Sky News. He was unable to identify the current rate of employers’ National Insurance contributions, and even the normally anodyne Dermot Murnaghan was not prepared to let him wriggle off that particular hook.
When pressed on the matter, Johnson quickly muttered ‘20 going up to 21 per cent’ and had to be reminded that it was, in fact, 12.8 per cent. It was a gaffe which was not entirely unexpected given Johnson’s lack of qualifications for the treasury role, which he hid initially behind a familiar mask of self-deprecation.
But it was not the first time he has struggled with his brief. Here’s another recent example.
‘Imagine your child’s trust fund has gone and your child benefit is frozen and your job’s gone and you’re paying more for your food because of the hike in VAT...’
Most people (but not the Shadow Chancellor, it seems) are aware there is no VAT on food, which makes this a toe-curlingly crass statement from a man in his position.
His appointment represented a comfortable compromise for Ed Miliband. It saved him having to give the job to leadership rival, Ed Balls, or his equally ambitious wife, Yvette Cooper.
But a manager who deliberately appoints inadequate or under-qualified staff in order to protect his own back will eventually be brought down by them.
If Miliband aspires to run a country (the prospect seems increasingly laughable), he must first show he is able to exercise some authority over the awkward faction within his own party.