It is a hard life being a politician. Failures, scandals and duck houses notwithstanding, they are under inhuman levels of scrutiny and not just to keep the next Profumo affair at bay. If we are honest, part of our desire to watch their every move has nothing to do with good governance. It is just so much funnier when they mess up than when Joe Public does. After all, it is a stable of British satire that it must only mock the powerful.
However an interesting corollary to this is a politician that makes the occasional gaffe can actually endear themselves to the public – Boris Johnson being the obvious example. Who would have thought that getting stuck on a zipline would actually help your political standing?
Another perfect example of this phenomenon came this week when transport minister Baroness Kramer attempted to honour a civic chief from Taiwan. Her attempt to give a present to Ko Wen-je, the mayor of Taipei, went so spectacularly, harmlessly, ridiculously wrong, one can't help but warm to her more.
The Baroness gave Mr Ko a watch – by most standards a perfectly harmless gift probably chosen for its ubiquitous and inoffensive usefulness... and for the fact they sell them in the House of Lords.
However apparently in Chinese culture the gift is taboo because it is in fact a portent of death. Clocks symbolise time is running out – the equivalent of getting someone a scythe for their birthday.
But just when you might have been forgiven for snickering at her expense, Mr Ko added to the comedy factor by reportedly saying: ‘I can just regift it to someone or take it to a scrap metal dealer and sell it for cash.’
By any standards this is one of the most hilarious responses to such a situation anyone could have mustered. Making one wonder if Mr Ko was either a) not being entirely serious b) so genuinely offended the mask of civility did not slip but was hurled from his face or c) had simply been trying a failed cultural translation of his own. As they say when in Rome, so perhaps when in Boris Johnson’s London a gaffe from a visiting civic leader is seen as only good form.
Either way the image of Taiwan’s municipal chief taking a watch that was bought for him by a peer of the realm down to the local scrap metal dealer so he could haggle over the price of copper is one that made me laugh.
‘No mate, I can’t give you more than a fiver for it.’
‘What? That’s finest House of Lords copper that is. Not your rail cable stuff.’
‘Sorry mate got anything else?’
‘Well... only this key to the city. How much is that worth?'
As the poet said when it came to giving watches: 'I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.’