Book review: The Cold War by Norman Friedman

The Cold War: From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. Published by: Carlton Books.

Nothing about the Cold War is simple. When, for example, did it start? Most people would say after the Second World War but a case could be made for saying it started as soon as Russia turned towards Bolshevism (that is, Communism) in 1917. Certainly the West was hostile to the new state from the outset, numerous powers attempting to crush it with a series of military interventions during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. But as the USSR was on the Allied side during the war with Hitler, most people view the Cold War as starting in the late 1940s, particularly after the USSR obtained nuclear weapons in 1949. This book does the same.

When did it end then? With the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? (it was in fact demolished later). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Were there, in fact, two Cold Wars, the first ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the second starting with the sharp decline in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?

Indeed, with China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos still Communist, could a case even be made for saying the Cold War is still on? Certainly, plenty of spying and intrigue still goes on and the world is hardly free of international tension particularly since the succession of President Trump in 2017. US defence spending is now far higher than it ever was during the official Cold War. This is essentially madness.

This thorough nicely illustrated and accessible account wisely restricts itself the key period, however, chronicling events from the botched aftermath of the Second World War, through to the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, Korean War, nuclear confrontation, the space race, Detente and ultimately a largely peaceful resolution, mostly attributable to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It is well worth reading.

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DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.

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: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley

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Book review: Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, by Lucy Worsley.

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

There is now no one on Earth who was alive at the same time as Queen Victoria. Her long life began nearly two centuries ago in 1819 when Napoleon was still alive. By the time of her death in 1901, her funeral procession was able to be filmed, bringing it to a wider audience than all previous royal funerals combined. Her reign, now the second longest in British history now was hugely important, marking the peak of British imperial power and the industrial revolution and the literary careers of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

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Victoria’s reign has been very well documented, however, so it is refreshing that Lucy Worsley has managed to find a fresh perspective on it through choosing to focus on 24 key days in her long life. Through this, we are able to gain a new insight into Victoria as a person, as well as a ruler, empress and symbol of an age.

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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 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 or 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.

corbHe, by and large, 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 backbencher 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 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, when serving as a backbencher. He is certainly not pro-terrorism, 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, in my view. 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 (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 Wedgewood-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 at the fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable and 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 an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again 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 the likes of John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – all from comparatively humble backgrounds – were unlikely converts to the Right.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, Rosa Prince is a Telegraph writer. 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 Tory 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: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson

Book review: 1918: How The First World War Was Won, by Julian Thompson. Published by: Carlton Books.

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A century ago, the guns fell silent after four years of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It is a conflict often described as futile with countless lives lost in skirmishes over very trivial areas of land, it is worth remembering that this was a war won as a result of military strategy as well as a war of attrition.

In fact, as late as 1918, after the humiliating capitulation of Bolshevik Russia at Brest-Litovsk, the war still looked like it could go pretty much either way.

Major General Julian Thompson’s book is produced in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum and is packed with detailed maps and relevant illustrations. It is a thorough and comprehensive account of the final year of the First World War.

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“Psst! The secret’s out…”

Secret Exeter cover

 

Welcome to Exeter: a city of witch trials, civil war sieges, uprisings, thwarted conquests and World War II bombing raids…

At least it was once…

Today Exeter is a modern, thriving and pleasant city, known for its cathedral, university, busy array of shops, cafés and restaurants and historic quayside. However, beyond its sometimes quirky, narrow streets, hide many lesser-known aspects in its history, those forgotten fragments of the city’s past that have thus far mostly eluded twenty-first-century attention.

How many people today, for example, know of the devastating Victorian theatre fire, the mass executions or of the multiple sieges that the city has endured during centuries of warfare? In Secret Exeter, local authors Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam attempt to shed light on the neglected corners of Exeter’s past.

From the introduction of Secret Exeter:

“Exeter is a fine place to live. Like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge, it is neither too hot or too cold, but just right, (although it is admittedly sometimes too wet). It is the perfect size: it is not too big and not too small. Exeter is just big enough to be practical but not so gigantic as to be overwhelming. It is neither Brobdingnag or Lilliput. Assuming you are reasonably fit, it is easy to walk into the countryside from virtually anywhere in the city…

“But this is not a tourist brochure. The aim of Secret Exeter is to shed light on the hitherto less renowned aspects of Exeter history. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. On the one hand, Exeter’s history is very apparent. It’s hard to walk very far at all without seeing some reminder of it: a cannon on the Quayside, a statue of a soldier on a horse, a section of the city wall. On the other hand, these are all arguably so well-known and obvious as to not really qualify as ‘secret’: surely everyone knows about them? But while many people pass them by, few know their real history.

“Another factor is the surprisingly large number of obscure and sometimes incredible facts in the city’s history. Ultimately, we’ve decided not to try and second guess what people know, as it is impossible for us to know what you, the reader, is aware of. One person’s revelation is another’s hoary cliché. We hope everyone will find something in here that they didn’t know before, whether it’s murderous mayors or evidence of bomb damage that residents of the city may have walked past hundreds of times without knowing that’s what it was.

“Indeed, our particular interest isn’t only in telling the history and stories of Exeter past, but how hints and evidence of the city’s history still exist around every corner in buildings, place names and in the ground itself – as long as you know what you’re looking for.”

Secret Exeter

By Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam

Published by: Amberley

September 15th, 2018

96 pages

100 pictures

£13.49

https://www.amberley-books.com/discover-books/local-history/area/devon/secret-exeter.html

Author information

Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough in 1976. He moved to Exeter in 2005 to write for a monthly DVD review magazine which Tim Isaac was the editor of. He has since written for the Exeter Express and Echo, Geeky Monkey, All About History, Best of British, Yours and Yours Retro magazines and has written several children’s annuals. He is married, lives in Exeter and can recite all the kings and queens back to 1066 in order.

Secret Exeter

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.

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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 brilliant 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 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 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 very sensible. 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.

It is 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 also 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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