Book review: The Sultan of Swing – The Life of David Butler

Okay: admittedly ‘The Sultan of Swing’ may sound like a rather flash title for a biography of the 20th century’s foremost election statistician: ‘Sultans of Swing’ was the name of a Dire Straits album. But David Butler was a seemingly permanent feature of the BBC’s TV election coverage for nearly thirty years. He not only largely created the science of Psephology (the study of balloting and calculating election results) almost from scratch but perhaps did more than anyone else to make the complex world of electoral science accessible and easily understandable to the general public. Although he has always been too modest to admit it, he effectively invented the familiar General Election night device of the Swingometer. He is now ninety-six years old. The long story of his life is worth telling and the veteran writer, journalist and broadcaster, Michael Crick does so very well in this biography, published in 2018.

It is quite eye-opening (at least, it was for me) to learn just how primitive election coverage was when Butler started out in the 1940s. Although BBC TV was established in 1936, the organisation remained extremely wary of providing decent coverage of elections or indeed any aspect of British political life for the first twenty years of its existence. Fearful that the government might accuse them of political bias and use this to restrict their powers (admittedly, a very real risk today), the broadcaster imposed strict rules on itself. The monumental 1945 General Election night was thus covered on BBC radio only: admittedly, perhaps not such a huge issue as very few people owned TVs then anyway. In 1950 again, the BBC did not allow itself to cover any election canvassing during the campaign itself. It did, however, tentatively allow a programme covering the results for the first time in which the handsome young dark-haired and very self-assured Oxford graduate, Butler made a favourable impression. He would become a fixture of the BBC’s election night coverage during the next nine General Elections held up to 1979, often appearing as part of a sort of double-act with friendly rival, the Canadian, Bob McKenzie. Butler would adopt spectacles and see his hair grow grey in the ensuing thirty years but his contribution would prove no less vital.

The book opens with a scene in 1950, in which Winston Churchill, at that point Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition and plotting his own return to Downing Street summoned the young Butler to discuss the possibilities the new science of opinion polling offered for predicting election outcomes in advance. It is a good start: the political titan nearing the end of his long career meeting the young talent at the start of his own. In general, though he seems to have been slightly left of centre politically, Butler strived to remain impartial, something which generated occasional tensions with his lifelong friend, left-wing Labour MP, Tony Benn who he met at university. Butler, in fact, had a very distinguished family background and was the cousin of the leading Tory politician, R.A. ‘Rab’ Butler.

Michael Crick chronicles the details of Butler’s many books, innovations, his travels in America and his success in exporting many of his techniques to Australia and India alongside his personal life. This includes two very sad elements\: the death of his wife, the very successful academic, Lady Marilyn Butler in 2011 after many years of happy marriage in 2011 following a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the death of one of their three sons, Gareth following a sudden heart attack in 2008, aged just 42.

But, in general, this is a well-researched and highly readable biography of a life well-lived.

Book review: This Land, by Owen Jones

Five and a half years ago, Jeremy Corbyn achieved the seemingly impossible. An amiable left-wing backbencher of some thirty years standing, his victory in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband was one of the most astounding political occurrences of the past fifty years. Yet four years later, his leadership ended in bitter defeat.

This insider’s account from the talented left-wing writer Owen Jones, one of the first people to champion Corbyn’s campaign in 2015, tells the story of this failure We will all have our own views of Jeremy Corbyn. However, this is a review of Owen Jones’ book not of Corbyn himself. And Jones is frank about Corbyn’s failings. He could be stubborn and badly organised. He totally mishandled the Brexit issue and the antisemitism row, two issues which totally derailed his leadership.

On the other hand, Jones does not mince words on how Corbyn was betrayed by those within his own party and how less surprisingly he was brutally misrepresented and maligned by Britain’s conservative media. Owen Jones’ book is a thoughtful, well-written, balanced, intelligent and accessible account of a revolution which failed.

This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane (2020)

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 10: War

And so, Series 4 of The Crown comes to an end, having guided us through the period from 1977 to 1990.

We are still talking about events a very long time ago: for example, the 30th anniversary of the fall of Margaret Thatcher (on November 22nd 1990) occurred exactly a week after this series fell onto Netflix. The world of 1990 was still a world, lest we forget, where mobile phones were still largely the preserve of a few yuppies shouting into them on trains and such concepts as the internet, Netflix and the actress Gillian Anderson either didn’t exist or were entirely unknown to most people.

Despite these facts, perhaps it’s just because of my age but 1990 much more like the world we know today than 1977 did. Or perhaps I should amend that? 1990 feels much more like the world we knew up until a year ago, than 1977 did.

At any rate, this episode marks the end of an era. After two series, twenty episodes and twenty-six years of time passing on screen, this episode sees the end of Olivia Colman’s reign as the second of The Crown’s second screen Queen Elizabeths. The first, Claire Foy, made a welcome cameo at the start of Episode 8 in a 1940s flashback. Elizabeth the Third, Imelda Staunton will assume her duties taking the Queen fully into old age in Seasons 5 and 6. We leave the Queen, now a grandmother in her early sixties, with a quartet of increasingly troubled grown-up children.

Olivia Colman has been a success in the role and she has been ably supported by a cast (also presumably all destined to now be replaced) of which Tobias Menzies’ reliably crotchety Prince Philip, Erin Doherty’s sharp-witted Princess Anne and Helena Bonham Carter’s increasingly embittered and famously rude Princess Margaret have all been standouts.

This series has, of course, been dominated by both another Margaret and another Princess entirely. This episode sees Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher get her marching orders after a killer speech from supposed ‘dead sheep’ and onetime loyal if frequently bullied ally, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson) precipitates a fatal leadership contest from a never-seen Michael Heseltine. After a rocky road together, particularly during Episode 8’s Apartheid-themed episode, the monarch and the Iron Lady end things on fairly good terms, albeit only after a bizarre, presumably completely imagined episode in which Thatcher makes a last ditch effort to retain power by proposing a dissolution of parliament. The Queen declines and a diminished Thatcher, stunned by her loss, walks off into the political sunset. A workaholic with no interests outside politics, Margaret Thatcher never reconciled herself to her removal from power (an event which she perhaps should have recognised was always bound to occur at some point) and reportedly never lived a happy day again. Although many viewers have been reportedly troubled by the fusion of the actress’s sexual allure with the famously unsexy Thatcher, Gillian Anderson can at least walk away happily from this role. Following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Sylvia Sims, Hadyn Gwynne, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Steve Nallon and Meryl Streep, her’s is undoubtedly the definitive screen Thatcher.

But the Lady’s not returning.

Of course, the other stand-out character of this series is ultimately headed for a grim fate too. Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana has also been a triumphant success, Corrin’s performance humanising a character who has become idolised to an almost magical status in many of the public’s eyes. The series leaves Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s marriage at very much a low point. With Series 5 destined to take events up to the fateful year of 1997, don’t expect things to get a lot better for them.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 5: Fagan

With so many matters of historical import being dealt with, it is no surprise The Crown has often come under scrutiny as to whether it is factually accurate. Broadly speaking, as with any historical drama, be it Wolf Hall, I, Claudius or anything else, it is fair to say, some dramatic licence has often been deployed.

For example, nobody really knows what the Queen talks about with her Prime Ministers in their weekly audiences, other than the Queen and the surviving ministers themselves (insofar as they would remember). The writers can speculate, however, based on our knowledge of the times and the personalities involved.

Events have sometimes been moved slightly in time or changed slightly. Princess Diana wasn’t in costume when she first met Prince Charles. Mark Thatcher’s disappearance in 1982 did not overlap with the start of the Falklands Crisis. However, the broad narrative sweep of The Crown is largely accurate. It is also interesting to note that many sources claiming to list things The Crown “got dead wrong about history” not only often misrepresent what actually happened in the series but are pretty free in their own speculation about historic events themselves.

This episode deals with an incident which seems so far fetched that it seems woefully implausible but yet did actually happen. In 1982, an unemployed painter and decorator, Michael Fagan (played here by Tom Brooke) did scale the 14 foot parameter wall of Buckingham Palace, shinnied up a drain pipe, climbed through an unlocked window and ultimately entered the Queen’s bedroom, briefly spending some time in the company of the understandably rattled monarch, before the alarm was raised.

Incredibly, this not only happened, but occurred only weeks after Fagan had breached Palace security before. On that first occasion, the Queen wasn’t present. Fagan had fled after being spotted in the Palace, having stolen and drunk what turned out to be a fairly cheap bottle of wine. Amazingly, although the Palace was fully aware of the incident, security was not tightened up enabling Fagan to do the same thing again soon afterwards, this time encountering the Queen, waking her up while she was in bed.

 As unstable figure as he was, it is actually surprising Fagan even managed to locate the Queen. It is fortunate she was not attacked or even assassinated. Fagan had mental health issues and was institutionalised for three months. He is still alive today, aged 70, and has been critical of the programme.

In The Crown, Fagan uses his time with the Queen (Colman) to vent some of his frustrations with the political situation at the time. In reality, it is unlikely Fagan was as articulate about these issues during his brief audience with the Queen, but the episode takes advantage of the incident to highlight the vast gap between the Queen’s life and that of many of her subjects at that point.

In what is generally a much grittier episode than usual, we get to see many aspects of Fagan’s unhappy poverty-stricken life as he proves unable to find work or gain access to his children.

Britain was at a low ebb in 1982: unemployment had more than doubled in the previous three years. Despite this Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) is accurately portrayed as being at the peak of  her political rebirth, following her victory in the South Atlantic.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 4: Favourites

So far, most of the episodes in this series can be easily divided into ‘Princess Diana’ episodes or ‘Margaret Thatcher’ episodes. At one point, in this one, we see Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) struggling through her pregnancy with the future Prince William as her husband, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) shouts at her through a door.

But otherwise, this is a Margaret Thatcher episode.

It’s 1982 and when we first see her in this episode, Mrs T (Gillian Anderson)is up in arms, not because of mass unemployment or the recession but because her son Mark (Freddie Fox) has got lost in the Sahara desert while taking part in the Sahara-Dakar Rally. Mark is soon recovered safe and well, but the Queen is surprised to see a more vulnerable side to the Iron Lady in the meantime. She is also surprised by the Prime Minister’s undisguised favouritism for her son Mark over his twin sister Carol (Rebecca Humphries in a role played by Olivia Colman herself in the 2011 film, The Iron Lady). Here, as in reality, Mark is spoilt rotten by his mother, becoming brash and overconfident, despite ultimately being pretty thick. Though genuinely intelligent, Carol, in contrast, comparatively ignored by her headstrong and domineering mother, has low self-esteem, only proving a success later in life as Mark proves a failure.

With some dramatic licence, the Mark Thatcher Sahara story here slightly overlaps with the start of the Falklands War. This wasn’t the case: there was in fact several months’ distance between the two events. It is thus unlikely Thatcher was venting feelings about her son when she reacted to the news of developments in the South Atlantic, as is suggested here.

Thatcher’s favouritism does prompt a teasing suggestion to the Queen from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that all parents have their own favourite amongst their own children. Philip here is upfront in admitting his own favourite is Princess Anne, a prejudice many viewers will doubtless share largely thanks to Erin Doherty’s winning performance.

But who is the Queen’s favourite? Her Royal Highness (played by Olivia Colman who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in the film, The Favourite) arranges a meeting with each of her four children. She is briefed about each of them first, just to ensure she is up to date.

The Queen finds her daughter as dry and grounded as ever. And yet she is clearly miserable: annoyed by how she is portrayed in the media (particularly when contrasted with the newcomer, Diana) and, crucially, unhappily married.

Charles is unhappily married too and turning into a world class bore. The Queen reprimands him for his poor treatment of Diana and for continuing to see Camilla on the side.

For the first time we also get to meet the teenaged Prince Edward (Angus Imrie), who seems arrogant and is bullied at school. Despite being keen to go the Falklands, Prince Andrew (Tom Byrne) also already seems to be developing unsavoury attitudes and is clearly utterly fixated on his own chopper (his helicopter, I mean).

Little wonder as the Queen here concludes: Mark Thatcher may be the one to have gone missing. But it is her own children who seem lost.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 2: The Balmoral Test

Balmoral: 1981. And the holidaying Royal Family are buzzing with excitement at the news a computer-animated stag has been sighted, limping across the nearby landscape. Who amongst them will be the first to fell the wounded beast? This episode is entitled, ‘The Balmoral Test.’ It could just have easily been called, ‘Stag Party.’

The Windsors also have other prey in mind too, as the Prime Minister and her husband are set to join them for a few days of socially excruciating fun and games. Will Margaret and Denis Thatcher (Gillian Anderson and Stephen Boxer) prove up to the challenge? Will they, in short, pass ‘the Balmoral test?’

Spoiler alert: no. They don’t.

As usual, writer Peter Morgan presents a balanced view of things. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was clearly a workaholic, with little sense of humour and no sense of fun. In real life, she described Balmoral as “purgatory.” She commits a number of social gaffes, notably turning up for a rural excursion to hunt the stag in a brilliant blue suit more appropriate for addressing the Conservative Party Conference. The woman who, in reality, spent nearly every New Year’s Eve of her eleven-year premiership in the company of Jimmy Saville, leaves after only a few days with the Windsors. She has better things to do: the country is in the grip of recession and her Cabinet, some of whom were in ‘Allo ‘Allo (Guy Siner – Gruber in the sitcom, sir Francis Pym in this) are in open revolt.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why any outsider might struggle to get involved in the long established traditions of a close-knit family, particularly one as jaded and weird as the Windsors are. The Royal Family treat the Thatchers with frosty disdain, never explaining anything and assuming everyone else already knows their silly little rules. It is easy to see why Thatcher might not enjoy playing ‘Iggle Piggle’ or enjoy the delivery of Princess Anne’s (Erin Doherty) spirited animal impressions at close quarters. It also doesn’t help that two of the Royals, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip (Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies) are amongst the rudest people to have ever lived.

Later, Mrs. Thatcher diminishes herself still further in the eyes of the Queen (Colman) explaining her purge of the Wets (Tories, uneasy at the severe consequences of her economic policies) occurred almost entirely due to a lack of resolution on their part resulting from their privileged social background. This would have been an odd tactic to adopt when talking to the Queen, of all people, and doesn’t really do justice to the stubborn self-belief which enabled the Iron Lady to cling doggedly to such policies, even as society was devastated by mass unemployment.

Back at Balmoral, however, another new arrival – Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) brings a new subject for the family’s scrutiny, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). There is a slight sense of manipulation in the way Diana wins over the Royals – for example, she tells Philip (falsely) she is essentially a country girl at heart. But this isn’t overstated. Diana soon helps the Duke kill the stag, effectively winning over all the Royals (except Margaret) in one fell swoop. She has passed the Balmoral Test with flying colours!

Next time we see her, she is Diana as most of the wider world in 1981 first saw her. A beautiful but seemingly ordinary young woman at the centre of stories about her relationship with the Prince of Wales, smiling self-consciously as she walks down the street surrounded by a growing number of snapping photographers, seemingly slightly irritated by all the attention, but also rather enjoying it at the same time.

And so, it begins…

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 1: Gold Stick

We pick up pretty much exactly where we left off.

It’s 1977 and the Queen is celebrating her Silver Jubilee. She is now around fifty (slightly older than Olivia Colman who plays her) and there is a sense the focus of the action is now shifting slightly away from her, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) and her drunken, unhappy, newly divorced sister, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) to the next generation: Charles (Josh O’Connor) and his youthful romantic entanglements and to Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) who is now married and enjoying success in her show-jumping career. The Queen’s two other children, Prince Edward and the now disgraced Prince Andrew, both teenagers at this point, have not really featured yet.

In the meantime, there’s a new face in Downing Street. Despite being an enthusiastic monarchist during his three-year spell as premier, poor old Jim Callaghan, doesn’t even get a look-in here. As with Alec Douglas-Home (who admittedly only lasted twelve months), “Sunny Jim” gets missed out of The Crown’s narrative completely. Instead, we jump straight to the May 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman PM and the only one of the Queen’s 14 First Ministers to date, to be roughly the same age as the monarch herself was at the time.

There have been a number of great dramatic portrayals of Margaret Thatcher over the years ranging from Lindsay Duncan, Patricia Hodge, Haydn Gwynne and Meryl Streep. In Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen, Sylvia Sims, who had once starred in 1991’s TV drama, Thatcher: The Final Days played The Queen Mother. Fittingly, when Meryl Streep starred in The Iron Lady, her daughter, Carol was played by Olivia Colman, who, is, of course, now The Queen in The Crown.

Margaret Thatcher is certainly not an easy role to play, partly because years of elocution lessons topped off with Saatchi and Saatchi-inspired voice exercises combined to ensure that she literally spoke like no one else who has ever lived on the planet Earth. Gillian Anderson does very well, capturing amongst other things Thatcher’s total lack of any sense of humour whatsoever. Like Thatcher herself though, it seems likely her performance will divide audiences. Philip and Margaret’s husband Denis (Stephen Boxer), meanwhile, react in similarly old school fashion to the news that Britain is now being ruled by “two menopausal women”. The Queen, in time, (like many others) found the famously headstrong, combative and stubborn woman premier difficult to like. In this first episode, however, set in 1979, the monarch seems very receptive to her.

At one point, we see the new Prime Minister doing the ironing. She is the Iron Lady.

Elsewhere, following Lord Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) generally bad advice to “sow his wild oats.” Prince Charles is still carrying on with his now married, old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell, not actually in this episode) while simultaneously dating one Lady Sarah Spencer (Isobel Eadie). It is during one visit to the Spencer household, having been briefly left alone with plenty of plants to talk to, that the thirty-ish Prince first encounters Sarah’s bewitching teenaged sister, Diana (Emma Corrin). More on her later…

This episode also deals with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and three others by an explosion caused by a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA in August 1979. The explosion is cleverly spliced between footage of the other Royals seemingly simultaneously hunting, shooting and fishing during their own separate summer holidays.

Anderson’s Thatcher (who had lost her own friend and colleague Airey Neave to a terrorist bombing only a few months earlier, although this isn’t referred to) promises vengeance to the Queen. Speaking during a private phone conversation, Anderson’s Thatcher adopts a vicious, vindictive tone, which one suspects, wasn’t what the grief-stricken monarch really needed to hear at the time.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall

Once upon a time, seemingly about in about 1935, but actually only about nine months ago, there was a General Election. It seemed very important at the time, but most of us have now probably forgotten all about it.

The Conservatives, under their new leader, Boris Johnson did surprisingly well in the snap 12 December election. Having never once managed to win a substantial majority in any of the seven previous General Elections held during the previous thirty years, they won a majority of eighty, easily enough to keep them in office until 2024. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in contrast, did very badly.

A notable feature of the results was that the Tories made substantial inroads into the so-called impenetrable ”Red Wall’ of sixty or so traditionally Labour old coal, steel and manufacturing seats stretching from the Midlands, across to the north of England and up into Wales.

In this book, pollster Deborah Mattinson interviews a range of people from within previous ‘Red Wall’ constituencies which succumbed to the Tories in December 2019. The book should make for fairly depressing reading for any Labour supporter, with many of the voters interviewed, feeling no connection at all to the party which is supposed to represent them. Predictably, the intense unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn was a major factor as was disenchantment over the party’s Brexit stance. The Tory slogan, “Get Brexit done” seems to have resonated strongly with many voters.

Some voters conclusions seems bizarre. One, depressingly seems to think the NHS was created by the Tories. In reality, of course, it was Labour’s crowning achievement. Others speak favourably of Trump or suggest Tim ‘Wetherspoon’s (the controversial businessman, Tim Martin) would make an ideal Prime Minister.

However, let us remember: no cowards should flinch from this book and no traitors should sneer at the views expressed within (apart from the one about Tim Martin). Labour has a historic mission to save the nation from the dishonesty and chicanery of the Tories. In 2019, despite a dismal Tory record in government over the past decade and a weak, lazy and all too vulnerable Tory leader in Boris Johnson, Labour completely failed to unseat them.

Only by gaining an understanding of why the election went the way it did, through reading books like this, can we hope to understand and thus begin the process of preventing this from ever happening again.

Book review: Beyond The Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How The Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next, by Deborah Mattinson. Published by: Biteback. September 15 2020.

Book review: Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill

Ernest Bevin was a towering figure in 20th century British history.

But nearly seventy years after his death, he is too easily overlooked today. The original Bevin Boy is too often remembered only as the rotund, bespectacled man pictured walking alongside Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee in photos from the 1940s. It does not help that his surname is so easily confused with that of Nye Bevan, another major figure in the Attlee government, but a completely different person.

Andrew Adonis, himself a figure in the Blair and Brown governments, corrects the balance in this thorough and well-argued biography. Without Bevin, the history of Britain in the 20th century would have been very different. Although he never led a party himself, he founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which by the start of the Second World War was the largest trade union in the western world. By this point, Bevin (who was born in 1881) was anticipating retirement after a life spent in the union movement. Like Churchill, his finest hour, late in life, was in fact, still to come.

He played a major role in securing the succession of Churchill in 1940 and Attlee as Labour leader in 1935 and was a key figure in ensuring Attlee survived a coup attempt immediately after the 1945 Labour General Election landslide. As the wartime Minister of Labour and as Attlee’s first Foreign Secretary, he was a crucial figure in the two greatest governments of the 20th century.

His final years, establishing Britain’s position in the new Cold War were critical.

“Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other post-war Western leader,” Adonis writes. “Better even than Churchill and far better than Roosevelt or Truman.” Whereas some such as Labour’s George Lansbury (who Adonis sees as sort of 1930s version of Jeremy Corbyn) were weak on Hitler and even Churchill had an inexcusable soft spot for Benito Mussolini early on, Bevin’s no-nonsense approach towards Stalin was vital in ensuring no unnecessary ground was conceded to the Soviets in the Cold War’s critical early stages.

This is not a slavish hagiography. Adonis does not ignore Bevin’s failings: in particular, he was short-sighted on the subject of Britain’s post-war European destiny, had a personal dislike of schoolteachers and had a muddled approach to the Middle East which actually suggests he probably harboured anti-Semitic views.

Nevertheless, at a time when statues of less worthy historical figures are being torn down, this book serves as a fitting monument to a Great British hero.

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, by Andrew Adonis. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

Exeter 2019 General Election Hustings Debate

With the General Election just ten days away, around 300 people chose to brave the cold December Monday evening air to see four of the six candidates competing to be Exeter’s next MP answer a selection of selected questions submitted by the general public inside Exeter Cathedral.

Two of the candidates were absent: Former pantomime star Daniel Page who is running as an independent and the Brexit Party candidate, Leslie Willis did not attend.

The Liberal Democrats (who performed very poorly in the 2015 and 2017 elections in Exeter) also did not attend as they are not fielding a candidate in this election. The party agreed to step aside to the give the pro-Remain Green Party candidate Joe Levy, a clear run. The Labour candidate, Mr. Bradshaw is also very pro-EU. However, Labour’s overall position is seen as less unambiguously pro-Remain than the Greens. (This paragraph has been amended as of 8th December 2019).

None of the candidates are women: the first time this has been the case in Exeter since 1987.

After some initial sound problems, proceedings began. Although each candidate answered each question individually, I’ll deal with each candidate, one at a time:

Ben Bradshaw (Labour)

This is the seventh election in Exeter for Labour’s Bradshaw and as he won his biggest ever victory in 2017 with 62% of the vote, it must be assumed he is the favourite to win again his time. He performed strongly on questions ranging from climate change, homelessness, transport, Brexit and the party leadership. He lamented the fact that Labour’s successful record on reducing homelessness had been completely undone by the Tories since 2010 and complained that environmental targets would be threatened by us leaving the EU.

He resisted attacking the Labour leadership or predicting a heavy Tory win nationwide as he did in 2017 and provided a convincing defence of Labour’s proposed nationalisation programme. He criticised the First Past the Post system which he campaigned to reform in the 2011 referendum. He argued that the best way to stop Brexit was by electing as many Labour MPs as possible and followed Green candidate Joe Levy’s lead in deriding the notion that a Tory win would mean a quick and easy end to Brexit as a nonsense. He also asked voters to judge him on his record as MP for Exeter since 1997.

John Gray (Conservative)

The Conservative candidate began with an interesting question. How many of the audience had actually read the Conservative manifesto? Very few hands were raised. This would doubtless have produced a similar response if he had asked about the other party manifestos too. But it was a welcome piece of audience participation in an evening which generally did not involve much audience response, aside from clapping and occasional grumbling. Perhaps it would have been a different story if the pantomime man had turned up?

Elsewhere, Mr Gray gave decent, worthy answers, some of which were undermined by the government’s record. He was predictably negative about nationalisation, although not very specific on why and gave good answers on the environment. He argued, as the UKIP candidate did, that the 2016 Brexit vote represented the will of the people. His claim that an overall majority for Boris Johnson’s Tories would lead to a quick and easy end to Brexit was derided by Joe Levy and Ben Bradshaw. His portrait of a Labour government torn apart by coalitions and confusion was similar to the ‘coalition of chaos’ arguments deployed by Tories in 2015. Some in the audience might have reflected that the decade since 2010 has been spent almost entirely under Tory rule and yet has been almost entirely spent in coalition or/and hung parliaments. The last three years particularly have seen more political chaos than anyone can remember.

Later, he was laughed at by many in the audience after he asserted that “a vote for Labour is a vote for Jeremy Corbyn, while a vote for me, is a vote for a Conservative government.” Bradshaw and others were quick to note his failure to mention Boris Johnson at this point. Later, he attempted to endorse Boris Johnson again. It did not seem entirely convincing. However, in general, Mr. Gray performed well.

Joe Levy (Green Party)

As in the 2017 campaign, Joe Levy, though still in his twenties stood out as one of the most impressive figures in the debate, making a convincing case for such concepts as the introduction of a universal basic income and, of course, the urgency of the need to combat climate change.

He drew particular applause for his passionate advocacy of EU membership, arguing his grandparents had supported it for the simple primary reason that they remembered the Second World War.

He also made a mockery of the general Conservative claim that a Tory win will automatically lead to a simple straightforward Brexit. Mr Bradshaw, picked up on this, agreeing that it was one of the biggest and most persistent lies of the Tory campaign.

Duncan Odgers (UKIP)

Arriving slightly late, Mr Odgers annoyed many in the audience, by asserting early on that contrary to popular belief immigration is a major problem in Exeter, in fact, largely explaining why house prices are high. Elsewhere, he performed well on other issues, even acknowledging climate change exists. He argued against nationalisation and argued Exeter (which voted 55 to 45 to remain in the EU) should respect the will of the nation as a whole on Brexit even if the city mostly did not support it itself. He spoke of Brexit as if it was something destined never to happen now and called Jeremy Corbyn’s position of neutrality on the issue, “a disgrace”. Occasionally, he rambled slightly. He blamed overpopulation for many of our environmental problems, but did not say what could be done about it.

A persistent charge, which many would agree with, was that many people today have lost faith in the current crop of politicians. A wider issue which wasn’t addressed was whether the upper ranks of UKIP who have included the likes of Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall in the past are really any more trustworthy.

Chris Hallam has written A-Z of Exeter: People, Places, History and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter with Tim Isaac. Both are published by Amberley and are available now

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians

Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.

As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.

You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.

Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.

Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.

It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

Book review: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982, by Dominic Sandbrook

Published by: Allen Lane, Penguin. Out now.

I am writing this in a time of acute political crisis. It is easy to lose all sense of perspective when assessing a situation while it’s still happening. Even so, the year 2019 is unlikely to be viewed as a happy one for nation when we remember it in forty years time.

Despite this, the fifth volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain since Suez, reminds us, the period, 1979-82 was very eventful indeed.

To briefly recap:

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister in British history.

By 1980, she was already hugely unpopular as unemployment and inflation rocketed. There would probably have been a recession around this time anyway, but Thatcher’s dogged commitment to monetarism made things worse. Not for the last time, Labour blow the opportunity to replace the Tories in power by electing the decent but unelectable Michael Foot as leader.

1981: The SDP breakaway from Labour and are soon way ahead of both the Tories (blamed for unemployment, rioting and recession) and Labour (harmed by Foot’s unpopularity and the antics of Tony Benn).

1982: The Falklands War transforms the political landslide. Thatcher becomes hugely popular again. There were signs of a Tory recovery before the Argentine invasion and it is doubtful ,Labour would ever have won the 1983 election anyway. But the Falklands Factor removed all doubt.

Sandbrook’s brilliant at these sort of books giving both a thorough insight into the politics of the period but almost all aspects of British life.

There are plenty of useful nuggets of info here. The book opens with an account of the live broadcast of the SAS break-up of the April 1980 Iranian embassy siege. The Alan Ahlberg book Peepo! is discussed as is Raymond Briggs’ incredibly harrowing graphic novel, When The Wind Blows. The rise of Ian Botham and Steve Davis are examined as is the fall of Joy Division and the rise of the New Romantics.

I was born in 1976 and so for the first time, like Sandbrook himself (who is about two years older than me) find myself encountering things here which I just about remember. I enjoyed the references to Peepo! (a book my baby brother liked) and was particularly interested in the portrait of my home town of Peterborough. I would dispute the claim made by an employee of the bishop of the time (and apparently endorsed by Sandbrook) that “Race relations are not a problem in Peterborough.” There were no riots in Peterborough as there were in Brixton in 1981 and although I went to school with a large number of children of Pakistani, Indian and Italian, I am white myself and cannot speak for them. But I know this for a fact: there were definitely racial tensions. There still are.

Reading the book, I was surprised to learn just how racist many people were back then. The extent of racism in the police force seems to have been appalling.

Sandbrook has started writing for the Daily Mail in recent years and though he strives for balance, his conservative tendencies occasionally show. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, then an early SDP champion, is at one point described as a “future saint.” Who regards her as a saint, you might ask? No one in the real world, that’s who. Certainly not Guardian readers. The term is only ever used in reference to Toynbee sarcastically by envious columnists on the Right. I was also surprised to see Sandbrook resurrecting the discredited claim that Michael Foot was in the pay of the KGB. Foot retained strong pro-democratic tendencies throughout his life and won a libel case against the Murdoch press when tbey made the same claim. Were he not dead, I’m sure Foot would be suing again. And I’m sure he would win.

So Thatcher generally comes out of this well, Sandbrook agreeing with Charles Moore, in the face of virtually all evidence that the Iron Lady had a sense of humour. Little credence is given to the notion that anyone might have found the somewhat jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands conflict distasteful. Tony Benn comes out of this badly. After an effective chapter about the fear of nuclear war experienced by many at this time, Sandbrook then seems to go out of his way to argue unconvincingly that nobody was ever seriously worried about it after all.

But ultimately, this is another literally superb addition to Sandbrook’s account of Britain since 1956. What next? Greed is Good? No Turning Back? Nice Little Earner? I eagerly await Sandbrook’s next volume.

As a chronicler of post-war Britain, Sandbrook is only seriously rivalled by David Kynaston and Alwyn W. Turner.

Book review: The Friends of Harry Perkins, by Chris Mullin

“Who is Harry Perkins?” you might ask.

The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.

Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.

Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is also very hard to foresee.

In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.

It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson, who was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book, is still middle-aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).

But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?

The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.

This is perhaps – like Thompson himself – not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.

Published by: Scribner UK. 192 pages

The BFJ (2016)

People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ, otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody understands, ” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “Like ‘rambunctious’ and ‘flibbertigibbet’. I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world, really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically by leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely NOT been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some have claimed.

Other, less popular recent characters from the same stable include Danny Alexander: Champion of the World, James Brokenshire and the Giant Speech, George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.

Film review: The Iron Lady (2011)

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Richard E. Grant, Alexandra Roach, Nicholas Farrell, John Sessions

Directed By: Phyllida Lloyd

Running Time: 105 minutes

UK Release Date: January 6th, 2012

Certificate:12A

Rating: 3 out of 5

Review first published on Movie Muser, January 2012  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Review: Nobody divides popular opinion quite like former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To some she is the nation’s saviour who triumphed in the Cold War and saved the country from an assorted army of lefties, Argentinians and unruly trade unionists, reversing decades of national decline. To others, her selfish and greedy policies wrecked our NHS, public services and schools and left a legacy of rising unemployment and crime from which we’ve never recovered. 

Perhaps for this reason, large sections of this film, avoid politics completely, instead focusing on the octogenarian Thatcher of today as she copes with the onset of old age, senility and comes to terms with the death of her beloved Denis (Jim Broadbent). Streep is firmly in the Oscar class as the elderly Thatcher and Broadbent is great if perhaps a lot more jolly and fun-filled than one imagines the real Denis to have been.

But it’s a shame that so much time is devoted to imagined ideas about the state of Thatcher’s mind as the flashbacks when they do finally get going have so much material to include. We do, however, get a convincing sense of how Thatcher (initially Margaret Roberts, played by Alexandra Roach) rises up from her lowly Grantham origins through the snooty smoky male-dominated Westminster world, surprising everyone, including apparently herself by eventually becoming the first woman prime minister.

A few bits don’t ring true: the scenes of a happy Thatcher family home life seem somewhat idolised (although Olivia Colman is great as daughter “Cawol”) and a sequence where the Lady suddenly reveals she knows the price of Lurpak to her Cabinet seems rather bizarre.

Inevitably, as this is a Margaret Thatcher biopic most of the key events of her tenure are viewed entirely from her own perspective. We see the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike. For some reason the strike (1984) not the war (1982) occurs first in this version, although as these are her random memories so arguably this is just misleading and needlessly confusing rather than just plain wrong.

But her opponents are never presented as being reasonable: they are either toffee-nosed wets or ugly hairy protesting lefties. Only towards the end, when Thatcher’s relentless single-mindedness on issues like the disastrous Poll Tax and her bullying of unlikely nemesis, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Anthony Head) unwittingly precipitates her downfall, does the screenplay lose sympathy with its subject. And even then it’s implied these failings could be an early manifestation of her illness.

But ultimately, while the strange perspective does effectively undermine the film, it’s hard not to be moved by Streep’s touching performance of a lioness in the winter of her life.

Overall Verdict: A flawed biopic but Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar for her performance. And at least the film doesn’t go on and on and on.

Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.

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By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge?
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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Book review: Fighters and Quitters by Theo Barclay

Book review: Fighters and Quitters: Great Political Resignations, by Theo Barclay. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

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All political careers end in failure, Enoch Powell is often quoted as saying. Not all end in dramatic frontbench resignations, however. Except for those included in this thorough and entertaining collection by barrister Theo Barclay. Fighters and Quitters fills in the blanks on some of the great ministerial resignations of the last century. In most cases, transcripts of the resignation letters (and their replies) are included in full: a nice touch.

The selection process to decide which resignations should be focused on in the book does seem to have been a bit odd though. First up is the Duchess of Atholl, who resigned over Munich: an interesting case, which I knew little about. The Duchess should not be confused with another famous Atholl who resigned too late for this book: notably the total Atholl who resigned as Foreign Secretary last month (JOKE).

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We then jump to 1963 and John Profumo: undoubtedly a massive resignation and the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century, skipping over Hugh Dalton’s “Budget leaks”, Nye Bevan’s “false teeth and spectacles” and Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, in the process (the Long Knives admittedly were more blatant sackings than resignations admittedly). Callaghan’s 1967 resignation over devaluation, George Brown’s 1968 departure as Foreign Secretary (after numerous empty threats to quit) and Reginald Maudling’s exit over the Poulson affair are all missed out.

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John Stonehouse and Jeremy Thorpe are covered. Both remain remarkable stories, but neither were particularly characterised by the resignations of the key participants.

The three big ministerial resignations of the Thatcher era (aside from the Iron Lady herself) do feature here: Heseltine, Lawson and Howe, the last two sharing a chapter. Other potentially interesting cases up to the present: Lord Carrington, John “here today, gone tomorrow” Nott, Cecil Parkinson, Jeffery Archer, David Mellor, Norman Lamont and David Blunkett are missing too. Probably I am asking far too much to expect all of these to be included. Nevertheless, the selection process does seem inconsistent.

Heseltine Speaks At Conference

Despite this, if you do enjoy accounts of ministerial resignations – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – this a solid, exhaustively researched read in which Barclay subjects the last thirty years to particularly intense scrutiny. He also redresses the balance in many cases.

Twenty years on, Welsh Secretary Ron Davies’ “moment of madness” and certainly his explanation for it seem madder than ever (overwhelmed by tiredness, he went to stretch his legs on Clapham Common in the middle of the night, met a man and agreed to go for a takeaway with him, before being robbed apparently). Edwina Currie, meanwhile “was the victim of a corporatist stitch-up, but it arose out of a crisis created by her own big mouth.” Peter Mandelson, meanwhile, seems genuinely hard done by. The general view that the late Robin Cook’s resignation over Iraq was principled and honourable (he in fact left it far too late to prevent anything) while Clare Short’s was hypocritical and self-serving (she in fact seemed very well-intentioned) is rightly reassessed.

An excellent read.

Edwina Currie launches new British Lion Code of Practice

Book review: Punch & Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

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Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.

Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was great at it, but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, (sometimes two) to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.

It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for the ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although through not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.

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On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems like a very sensible move indeed. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well-researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.

Prime Minster’s Question Time a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis, probably puts more people off politics than anything else.

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It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.

Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.

“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”

Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:

“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.

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By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.

It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.

But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.

And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.

That is that. The end.

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Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock

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In 1989, Boris Johnson, then aged 25, reported on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s recent press conference performance in which she committed Britain to joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism. According to him, the 63-year-old premier was looking: “distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she were up to something naughty.” Alan Clark, Tory MP, diarist and notorious womaniser was another fan. “I never came across any other woman in politics as sexually attractive in terms of eyes, wrist and ankle,” he wrote, rather oddly. Paul Gascoigne, the footballer, also seemed keen, embracing her eagerly on meeting her in 1990. “I was right there and could see that she just loved it,” observes her private secretary, Caroline Slocock observes. “What he thought he was doing, I don’t know.”

Others, such as her longest serving chancellor, Nigel Lawson, were less keen. “I think she could turn it on if she wanted to,” says the father of the TV chef, Nigella Lawson, “but sexiness wasn’t the most obvious thing about her. She was also extremely headmistressy.” For the record, if Microsoft could detect sexism, the last sentence would have a line underneath it now on my computer.

As it is only the word ‘headmistressy’ is underlined because the spelling and grammar check has noticed ‘headmistressy’ is technically not actually a word. If it was, it would mean, “like a headmistress or someone in charge.”

In other words, Lord Lawson is saying. She acted like she was in charge. Which she was. She was the Prime Minister. But I didn’t like it because I was a man and wanted to be Prime Minister myself and anyway wasn’t used to having a woman tell me what to do.

In 1989, Caroline Slocock became the first female private secretary to any British Prime Minister. She was – and is – a bright spark and a valuable eyewitness to Margaret Thatcher’s final year in office and subsequent overthrow. Best of all, unlike Thatcher herself, she was both a socialist and a feminist. That’s right! She’s one of us.

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This is an excellent, highly readable memoir which really does shed new light on the “Iron Lady.” Slocock like many people, was somewhat repelled by Thatcher’s artificial sounding voice, the product, first, of childhood elocution lessons intended to purge the Grantham out of her and later softened by the tutoring of Saatchi and Saatchi spin doctors.

As Slocock points out though, the political environment in the Commons both then and now, clearly favours male speakers. Were this not the case, would all those years of speech work have been necessary? One suspects not.

As Norman Tebbit puts it: “One of the problems of being a woman in politics is that men can shout, but if a woman increases the volume of her voice, she tends to squawk.”

Slocock actually lets Lawson off the sexism charge (even after some bizarre distasteful comments from him, which suggest she sat on her knickers, rather than her skirt) but it is a fact that while she got on with many men: Denis Thatcher himself, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Cecil Parkinson,  she certainly didn’t, others: Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe. Her utterly contemptuous treatment of Howe, a decent man who she humiliated through her public bullying and shaming of him, ultimately brought her down. Deservedly so.

Equally unforgivable as Slocock notes, is Thatcher’s near total failure to promote other women. Thus, the big expanse in women MPs didn’t come until the age of Blair. The first woman Foreign Secretary? Under Blair. First woman Home Secretary? Under Blair, again.

I spotted only one mistake that should have been proofed out on p119:

“(Chris Smith) was appointed as the first openly gay person in the Cabinet in 1997, nine years after Margaret Thatcher had left power.”

Nine years? Really? After November 1990? Not six and a half?

But my own pedantry aside, this is an excellent read.

THATCHER-PARTY

Book review: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, by Caroline Slocock. Published by Biteback. Out: now.