Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Mr Cameron made a huge error when he embraced the NHS (Telegraph)

First Mid Staffs and now the CQC scandal show the failings of a system built by Labour, writes Charles Moore.

2. From memory to sexuality, the digital age is changing us completely (Guardian)

I once thought the world of the internet would be the same as before, only faster. In fact, it's altering every corner of human life, says Jonathan Freedland.

3. ‘We’ are not the West: ‘we’ shouldn’t intervene (Times) (£)

It doesn’t matter what Britain thinks about Syria or other great global questions. We are no longer a world power, argues Matthew Parris.

4. Why are the BRICs are crumbling? Welcome to the permanent revolution (Independent)

In most of the Bric countries economic rise has involved increased inequality, exacerbated corruption and failing public services - and that's just half the story, reports Paul Mason.

5. The Prime Minister's apparent determination to intervene in Syria reveals he has been seduced by the glamour of international statesmanship (Mail)

Has David Cameron learned nothing from Tony Blair, wonders Simon Heffer.

6. We must stop internet porn grooming men (Times) (£)

It’s no good just building more prisons for those who view images of children. These men must be scared off, writes Janice Turner.

7. The revulsion at the Saatchi-Lawson pictures helps us name abuse (Guardian)

Others helped me see my ex-partner's domestic violence for what it was. Public condemnation is crucial, says Jill Dawson.

8. When the weather’s like this, it’s a very long wait until the next election (Independent)

Five years is too long for a fixed-term parliament, argues Chris Bryant.

9. The world is still being held hostage by its rotten banks (Financial Times) (£)

Another financial crisis is probable and it would be much more damaging to the global economy, says John Plender.

10. The Lib Dems take the honours for sheer hypocrisy (Telegraph)

Given the way British politics is going, the bungs and the patronage will continue to flow, says Robert Colvile.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.