Political bust-ups: the worst moments

A list of recent parliamentary punch-ups. Warning: contains violent scenes.

The physical fight that erupted inside the Italian Parliament on 27 October over pension reforms caused quite a stir -- but it was by no means the first time politicians have come to blows. Here, we present an assorted collection of parliamentary pugilism that makes The Thick Of It's Malcolm Tucker look like a pacifist. Judging from these clips, Bob Dylan might have had it right when he hummed "democracy don't rule the world, you'd better get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence."

Ukraine - April 2010

This footage, showing carnage inside the Ukrainian parliament, ranks highly on our list of "low-lights", if only for the sheer variation of methods of attack employed. The speaker, Volodymyr Litvyn, was shielded by umbrellas as opposition members hurled hundreds of eggs. Several smoke bombs are also thrown, in protest against Viktor Yanukovych's newly formed coalition passing a motion allowing the Russian navy to extend its stay in a Ukrainian port until 2042.

India - June 2007

 

Before a debate over a sensitive civil-rights issue had even begun, members of minority parties converged on the House Leader's bench, quickly sparking a violent free-for-all. Gandhi would have wept if he had seen how quickly the debate descended into all-out war, with seriously dangerous-looking metal microphone stands becoming menacing projectiles.

South Korea - July 2009

Here, hundreds of lawmakers clash over plans to ease restrictions on the ownership of television networks. The chaotic scenes began after members of the ruling Grand National Party attempted to rush the bill through, only for opposition parties to barricade the main entrance to the National Assembly. After a concerted surge, GNP members gained entrance and a full-scale brawl ensued. This video stands out for the scale of the fight, which seemed to involve the entire parliament and notably, its female contingent. The bill was eventually passed.

Taiwan - July 2010

The accompanying Metro headline for this confrontation read "Taiwan parliament descends into traditional massive fight", as similar clashes had occurred only months earlier. Along with the usual punches and kicks, legislators can be seen flinging rubbish bins and jostling for space on the speaker's podium, as if any words could calm the situation down. The fight broke out between the ruling Kuomintang party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, after calls to discuss a controversial trade-pact with China were rejected.

United States: Alabama Senate - June 2007

In explanation for this seemingly unprovoked attack on Democratic Senator Lowell Barron, 65, Republican Senator Charles Bishop claimed he had been called a "Sonuvabitch". He went on, "where I grew up, that's someone talkin' bad about your mother", and so "I responded with my right fist". Quite how 69-year-old Bishop became so aggrieved by this supposed slight against his (admittedly"long-dead") mother is unclear, but it shows how tensions can rapidly boil over even in an otherwise sedate atmosphere. It seems that when it comes to acting like children, old-age is no barrier.

Judo-politician

Finally, the case of the mysterious politician who can be seen calmly flipping his opponent through the air. Details of the origins of the clip are fairly sparse, but it has to rank as a favourite. The film has become a YouTube sensation and contrasts to the scenes of all-out mayhem witnessed above. As one of the comments succintly points out: "When engaging in a political brawl, its best to stay away from Judo practitioners."

 

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories