Claws out: five top 'PM under attack' quotes

Politicians say the nastiest things . . . about each other

It would be an absolute effing disaster if Gordon Brown was PM, and I'll do anything in my power to effing stop him.

So said the mystery minister to Nick Robinson in 2006. Now, the former defence secretary John Hutton has admitted that it was he, after intensive questioning on Eddie Mair's radio show. The confession came with the caveat that he has now changed his opinion: "I think he has been a tremendously hard-working man, who has really put his heart and soul into it."

Robinson, on his blog (which also has the full transcript of the Mair interview), says:

This is more than mere historical trivia. Hutton resigned from Brown's cabinet on the same day as James Purnell walked out calling for a change of leadership. Had Hutton backed Purnell's view -- or, indeed, publicly repeated any of his private views -- we would now in all probability have a different man leading the country.

But there is nothing wrong with a bit of historical trivia, I say, so here we go. You'd think politicians would behave with a little diplomacy. But whether it's members of their own party, or other heads of state, they are slating each other all over the place.

Here are my top five quotes about British PMs -- from other politicians. Please do share any other suggestions below.

1. Alas, poor Gordon. In a verbal echo of Hutton's comments, the former home secretary Charles Clarke used an article in the New Statesman last year to say that: "Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election". He doesn't mention Brown by name, but in case you were in any doubt, he goes on to describe "a deep and widely shared concern -- which does not derive from ideology -- that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are".

2. "What does she want, this housewife? My balls on a tray?" Jacques Chirac, then prime minister of France, made this delightful comment about our very own Maggie Thatcher during the February 1988 Brussels summit. Misogynistic? Naaah.

3. Although, that said, she's not so lovely herself. "I've got my teeth into him, and I'm not going to let go," said Thatcher of Edward Heath during the Tory leadership contest in 1975. Frightening stuff. She followed it up in 1979 when she was safely ensconced, with the cutting comment: "When I look at him and he looks at me, I don't feel that it is a man looking at a woman. More like a woman being looked at by another woman."

4a. "Yo, Blair." Oh, Dubbya. George W Bush was caught on tape at the G8 conference in 2006 using the casual greeting with Tony Blair -- evidence of that irksome special relationship. Suffice to say that the tabloids were not impressed.

b. On a more serious note, Blair got his fair share of criticism from within the party, too. In 2005, during the dispute over extending the detention of terror suspects to 90 days, Peter Kilfoyle, a former junior defence minister, said:

Any reality check should start at No 10. The Prime Minister is out of touch with his own party and both Houses. He can't keep playing the loyalty card. He said after the May election he had listened and learned. If he listened, he hasn't learned the right lessons.

5. And finally -- turning the tables. In 1993, the then prime minister, John Major, branded three unnamed cabinet ministers (thought to be Michael Portillo, Michael Howard and Peter Lilley) "bastards". Good on him.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder