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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle