Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Can things can get any worse?

It is not impossible that the next President of the United States will be a woman, or that Labour will win the next General Election.

However, we can be pretty sure that these things are only going to happen if John McCain or Barack Obama volunteers for gender reassignment surgery by the end of the year, and if Labour finds a new leader to replace Gordon Brown.

If the Prime Minister continues to insist that only he is equipped to guide the country through these difficult times, nothing will stand between David Cameron and Downing Street, short of a shock revelation that he has been raising a secret family in the cellar of his Notting Hill eco-home, and forcing them to take part in evil experiments on small, furry animals.

It has been suggested that Mr Brown’s staunch support for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill owes something to the fact that he has a young son with cystic fibrosis, and is naturally keen to promote medical research into such life-threatening conditions.

But there are times when his behaviour suggests that the Prime Minister himself is the product of a pioneering hybrid embryo, created by inserting a smidgen of human DNA into the egg of a particularly bone-headed dinosaur.

It may be sad and wrong, but no-one with such a catastrophic lack of PR skills can hope to succeed as our national leader in this shallow and celebrity-obsessed media age. It is the perfect time for an easy charmer like Tony Blair, who frightened no-one but the traditional core supporters of his party, and was so remarkably difficult to hate.

Perhaps Labour MPs had a different sort of termination in mind when they refused to countenance a reduction in the time limit for abortions, but it is going to be anything but a quick and painless operation to eliminate Mr Brown. No-one who has worked tirelessly for more than a decade to get their hands on the remaining levers of British power is going to give a resigned shrug and calmly hand them over to the first passing Miliband.

And even when the right thing to do is so painfully clear, how on earth do you take a diplodocus for its final appointment with the vet?

In these desperate times, Labour thoughts will turn naturally to the creation of a saviour sibling, but one with the easy smile and winning ways of Tony Blair rather than the dour obstinacy and ability to get people’s backs up demonstrated by Gordon Brown. And the bad news for them is that just such a saviour sibling already exists. He is called David Cameron.

As a lifelong, though sceptical, Conservative supporter, I welcome the end of the last 16 years of pain much as John O’Farrell’s hilarious book, Things Can Only Get Better, celebrated New Labour’s rescue of the party he loved from its long, dark night of utter uselessness.

Because my views are at the libertarian end of the spectrum, perhaps best described as Tory Anarchist, I have more friends on the left than within my own party. I have been much struck by how many of them were willing to abandon the habits of a lifetime this month and vote Conservative, particularly for Boris Johnson in London.

It’s not just the faltering economy and rising taxes that have created this tide, or the apparent lack of principle and simple incompetence over the 10p tax band. It’s the growing sense that we are living in a controlling, authoritarian state that is obsessed with ordering every detail of our lives.

Discussing this on Friday with a barrister much exercised by the assaults on civil liberties since 1997, she declared that things could not get any worse under the Tories. Perhaps she has given me the ideal title for a hilarious book on their current renaissance.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The party behind the hereditary principle

It would be insane hyperbole, even by my standards, to claim that Britain is holding its breath for the result of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election on Thursday.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there is nothing quite like a by-election for putting a place on the map and extracting promises from the political class. If we ever want to see the A1 dualled through north Northumberland, our best bet is probably to keep on re-electing Alan Beith until he dies peacefully in his sleep at the age of 98, thereby triggering the first by-election in Berwick-upon-Tweed since the one that brought him into Parliament in 1973.

Cynics will argue that the winning party would immediately renege on its promise, as politicians have done so many times before. But much stranger things than the construction of a few miles of dual carriageway have happened to swing a by-election. Just look at the £150 million Humber Bridge, pledged by Barbara Castle for the sole purpose of winning the Hull North by-election of 1966.

Now, on payment of a mere £2.70 toll, the citizens of Hull can speed across this marvel of engineering to a roundabout in the middle of a field in Lincolnshire. They must have their fingers crossed for another by-election that would secure a promise to connect the thing to a road going somewhere useful. That will no doubt be why Prezza’s Hull West Working Men’s Club does such a roaring trade in meat pies: “Go on, John, have another one! You know you want to!”

Crewe and Nantwich has already made electoral history with the unprecedented £2.7 billion tax bribe dished out last week to help some victims of the 10p tax abolition, and the many more who were deemed to care about them.

It says much for the total uselessness of the party hacks and PR spivs currently representing us in Parliament that it took them a full year to spot the fatal flaw in Gordon Brown’s brilliant last budget, and seek to do something about it.

The late member for Crewe and Nantwich, Gwyneth Dunwoody, stood out from this dismal throng. A combative, independent-minded “awkward old bat”, in her own words, her chairmanship of the transport select committee made its proceedings compelling radio listening. If we could secure the services of another 645 of her kind, not much Government legislation would get passed (which would be a bonus, in my view) and respect for Parliament would soar.

Personally, if I had a vote on Thursday, I’d feel curiously drawn towards former Miss Great Britain Gemma Garrett, 26, of the Beauties for Britain party. I wouldn’t like to say what I might do for her in the privacy of the polling booth; but I certainly wouldn’t hide behind the sofa if she came round canvassing, as I’d feel inclined to do with all her rivals.

Added to which, some standards in Parliament clearly need raising if even the broadsheets cannot print a picture of housing minister Caroline Flint without including the word “phwoar” in their captions.

Whatever happens, nothing can ever take away the joy of seeing the party of equality and opportunity chucking all its resources into trying to turn Crewe and Nantwich into a hereditary fiefdom of the Dunwoody family by securing the return of the late MP’s daughter Tamsin.

Here’s an idea, Gordon. You could save all the trouble, expense and uncertainty of by-elections by making the succession automatic and maybe renaming the Commons. Something like “the House of Lords” would cover it nicely.

And so one of the two vaguely radical reforms enacted in the barren Blair years bites the dust. How long can it be before Gordon Brown appears in Downing Street on horseback, wearing a red coat and blowing a horn, with a pack of hounds milling around him?


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The wrong end of the stick

It’s funny how sticky adjectives can be. As sticky, as Blackadder once put it, as the time that Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun.

For example, it is apparently impossible for any British media organisation to refer simply to the local election results of 1 May. They are invariably the “disastrous” local election results, at least from the viewpoint of Labour and Gordon Brown. Which is naturally the preferred angle, since bad news is so much more gripping than the other sort.

Anticipating this compelling need for an adjective, we PR practitioners tend to stick one in when describing our clients. “Leading” is a popular choice, though thinkers outside the box will aim for “iconic” or “cutting edge” if they possibly can.

With a bit of ingenuity, we can make the best of almost any situation. “A top five company” sounds so much better than “the fifth largest”, particularly if there are only five players in its sector.

Negative adjectives come into their own during hostile takeover bids. I once defended a company whose every action and statement was branded as “woeful” by the other side’s PR firm. It didn’t prove particularly effective, as they lost, but it certainly got right up my nose for 60 long days.

The PR nightmare is the media choosing its own adjective about a company, usually “troubled”. Once your client becomes “the troubled retailer” (or whatever) the word sticks to it like superglue for years. Hours are spent on the phone pointing out that profits have just doubled, and hoping that the journalists concerned don’t remember that they fell by 80% the year before.

Tory Central Office is now apparently road testing “the surprisingly common David Cameron” to counter accusations that he is too privileged to relate to the concerns of ordinary people.

Meanwhile, the polished Government spin machine is also creaking into action, and all future press releases about Gordon Brown will describe him as “the jolly decisive Prime Minister”, leaving a delicious ambiguity about whether “jolly” alludes to his ever-smiling, laugh-a-minute nature, or is simply a substitute for “very”.

I think they’ve got the right end of the stick at last, but I don’t fancy their chances of making it stick in the slightest.

Keith Hann is an energetic and witty PR consultant, and if you believe that …

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

A cold collation of revenge

It has often been remarked that the people facing you in Parliament are merely the opposition, while your real enemies are sitting on the benches behind you. It may be a platitude, but every recent development in the unravelling career of our Prime Minister underlines its essential truth.

A month ago I rashly challenged the notion that we were witnessing the enactment of a Shakespearean tragedy in Whitehall, but there can be no doubt now that I was wrong. It is Julius Caesar all over again, only spilling rather less blood since most of the conspirators are choosing to whack the emperor over the head with thick, square books of memoirs rather than plunging daggers into his back.

Though I did think I detected the flash of a stiletto when Frank Field was on Any Questions on Radio 4 on Friday night. He threatened a backbench revolt sufficient to bring the Government down, in the absence of a comprehensive scheme of compensation for victims of the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

That would be the same Frank Field who expected to be made Secretary of State for Social Security in 1997, but whose appointment was blocked by Gordon Brown. Having been invited to “think the unthinkable” on welfare reform as deputy to the Brownite Harriet Harman, Field was then provoked into resignation as his radical ideas were set aside in favour of Brown’s own pet scheme of means tested tax credits. A system of Byzantine complexity whose establishment, most commentators seem to agree, had less to do with helping the poorest in society than with entrenching and extending the power of Brown’s Treasury.

If you spend ten years ruthlessly pursuing your own political agenda and personal ambitions with famously poor grace and ill temper, the odds are that you are going to make rather a lot of enemies, and that they will enjoy getting their own back when the opportunity arises. That is precisely what we are witnessing now.

It was said at the outset that Gordon Brown would enjoy one huge advantage as Prime Minister over Tony Blair. He wouldn’t have a brooding Scotsman with a grudge sitting in the house next door, plotting 24/7 on how to do him out of a job. Luckily for the Conservatives, Mr Brown has demonstrated that he needs no such assistance, and is more than capable of finding his own way to spend more time in Kirkcaldy with his young family.

I wrote more than a year ago that it was hard to see such a famously shy, disorganised, irascible, indecisive and undiplomatic man becoming a happy or effective Prime Minister. I can claim no personal credit for this insight, which was based entirely on reading Tom Bower’s deeply disturbing biography. I also said that I did not understand what actually drove Mr Brown, and I still don’t. As he flounders through his attempted re-launch, I feel like a four year old pointing and asking, “Daddy, what is that man for?”

What I do know is that the key to political success these days is charm. Tony Blair had it by the tanker load. So, in perhaps more modest quantities, do those notorious toffs Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Poor old Gordon, by contrast, is a completely charm free zone.

But even allowing for this inadequacy and the many enemies he had made, I did not grasp until the weekend how he had managed to get into such a very deep mess quite so quickly. Then Rupert Murdoch started serialising Cherie Blair’s memoirs and she revealed that Tony was still in regular contact with Gordon and was giving him tips on how to win the next election. Ah yes, that would account for it. Revenge served ice cold, just as the pundits say it should be.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The best way to wipe the slate clean

Alan Bennett was writing about the traitor Guy Burgess when he came up with his famous line about this country’s attitude to the elderly: “If you live to be 90 in England and can still eat a boiled egg, they think you deserve the Nobel Prize.”

His point was that age wipes the slate clean. As proof of that, one might cite the general affection now felt towards such once controversial politicians as Denis Healey (90) or Tony Benn (83). Of that generation, perhaps only Margaret Thatcher (82) still arouses strong hostility in some quarters.

We lazily accept that living to an advanced age is the way to become a national treasure. Humphrey Lyttelton (86) undoubtedly was one, as the outpouring of tributes on his recent death demonstrated. Yet last Thursday I attended a very sparsely attended show by another man I had considered a shoo-in for the category, Nicholas Parsons (84).

Just like Humph, Parsons has been hosting a popular Radio 4 panel game for decades. As he surveyed the rows of empty seats in the Alnwick Playhouse, he ruefully remarked that he had enjoyed a full house the last time he was there, to record Just A Minute.

Now, it may well be that he only had himself to blame, as his chosen subject was the nonsense writer Edward Lear, a man known to me chiefly for a series of clunkingly unfunny limericks. Despite Parsons’ rapturous enthusiasm, I continue to regard Lear as a crashing bore.

But even I could not fail to be impressed that a man of Parsons’ age had committed so much poetry to memory, and was able to recite it with such clarity and conviction. It was a tour de force by any standards.

The odd thing is that the last time I attended a one-man show at the Playhouse, expecting to enjoy a very intimate dialogue with Michael Portillo (54), I found myself in an absolutely packed theatre. His humiliation in the 1997 Labour landslide has been ranked among the most popular TV moments of all time, and Alnwick is not exactly a Tory heartland, yet the atmosphere was friendly: no-one had come to jeer, heckle or take revenge for the miners.

As an entertainer, Portillo proved to be to William Hague what Little and Large were to Morecambe and Wise. As a political pundit, he pronounced that the mountain the Tories have to climb is so huge, and the electoral system so biased against them, that the best David Cameron can hope for is to reduce Gordon Brown’s majority in 2010. That does not look like a particularly astute prediction after last week’s results.

How has Portillo short-circuited the national treasure selection process, so that he can attract a far bigger audience than a distinguished octogenarian broadcaster? Of course, he has the advantage of enjoying far more TV exposure. But I’m troubled by the niggling thought that even that great national treasure Alan Bennett (74 on Friday) can occasionally get it wrong. Maybe the Healey and Benn generation aren’t liked now because they are old, but simply because they are no longer politically active.

With politicians now held in such massively low regard, perhaps anyone who packs it in for a career on the telly automatically gains respect and can thereby wipe their personal slate clean long before they qualify for their pension. Admit it, don’t you feel much more warmly about those two broadcasters with the MP initials (Portillo and Parris) than you ever did when they had the letters after their names?

There you go, then, Gordon. The path to rehabilitation is clear. Though you may need to do something about your smile and that funny thing you do with your mouth before you go for your screen test.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.