Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. The coalition gives Clegg a veto on arming Syria (Independent)

The greatest vindication of the Lib Dem leader's decision to take his party into government may still be to come, says Mary Dejevsky.

2. Borrowing for homes and roads would be popular (Times)

George Osborne is in no position to give lectures on borrowing, writes Mark Ferguson.

3. What's holding Britain down isn't benefits. It's low pay (Guardian)

Our brand of capitalism has become cannibalistic, writes Zoe Williams. The minimum wage isn't enough, and has become a profound drag on our economy.

4. Ashcroft and the Tories should part company (Daily Telegraph)

The Conservative peer's vicious and damaging public criticisms of the PM have gone too far, says Peter Oborne.

5. Stephen Hester's departure is a huge gamble, and one I fear will backfire (Daily Mail)

Changing the captain at this stage could be a huge error and, in the end, actually slow repair and recovery, writes Alex Brummer.

6. Ahmadinejad: we’ll miss him when he’s gone (Daily Telegraph)

Iran’s president was the bogeyman the west loved to hate, writes Richard Spencer. But his successor will be much tougher to deal with.

7. Big data has to show it’s not Big Brother (Financial Times)

We do not know yet what this new technology of data analysis and artificial intelligence means, writes John Gapper.

8. Europe must condemn Erdoğan, but without hubris or illusions (Guardian)

Europe should support those who stand up for our shared values, but don't expect miracles from Turkish democracy, writes Timothy Garton Ash.

9. Do you mind being snooped on? Take a test (Times)

Whatever your view, we all need to trust those who act in our names and the laws governing their activities, says David Aaronovitch.

10. NSA surveillance: who watches the watchers? (Guardian)

It's not the widening of state intrusion that's wrong, but the weakening of the safeguards that should be there to protect us, says Paddy Ashdown.

Show Hide image

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.