Let me explain the comfy trainers

If you enjoy watching the BBC series The Thick of It, you may well have wondered which female cabinet minister my character, Nicola Murray, is meant to be. It's a question I am frequently asked these days, and I can honestly tell you two things. One: by the end of this article, I will have revealed the truth; and two: it won't be who you think it is.

Before I got the part, I'd only ever met one MP - a Conservative backbencher who came to give a talk at my school. As head girl, I was charged with the meet and greet. I don't know if he was struck by my manner, a strange combination of deferential charm and cynical disdain. But had he asked the reason for it, I would have explained that a few months earlier I had written to him asking if he was aware of the mortal dangers we all faced from nuclear weapons; and if he was, why he hadn't single-handedly set about disarming them. He had replied on House of Commons notepaper, which seemed to me wildly impressive, hence the obsequiousness.

My cynicism was occasioned by the brevity of his response: "Thank you for your letter. I have taken note of your concern."

Blears for fears

So deep was my feeling that something should be done - about nuclear weapons, poverty, unemployment, you name it - that, for about six months afterwards, I was convinced I should go into politics. But then I remembered how much fun acting and singing were, and how very much I hated having arguments, and decided to go back to plan A. I don't think I was a loss to the political stage. My odd mixture of moral judgementalism and woeful indecision wouldn't have made me a great asset.

Since filming The Thick of It, I've had many more political encounters. Shortly before the series aired, a screening was held in a Westminster conference room. As we gathered beforehand, I was disappointed to see no well-known MPs in the room; but just as the lights were going down, there was a rush of last-minute arrivals. While we'd been filming the series - in which I play a hapless and sometimes hopeless secretary of state - real female cabinet ministers had been having a rough ride. Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint had all had bruising moments in the media spotlight. Now, under cover of semi-darkness, all three had arrived in the screening room.

Perhaps someone had told them that the character was based on them. She was not.

Nor was she based on any of the other women MPs who have since sidled up to me with a friendly handshake and an anxious: "Is she supposed to be me?"

The Thick of It is not Spitting Image, mocking recognisable establishment figures of the day. The writers don't so much react to real events as predict them. Armando Iannucci and his team are extremely well versed in politics, but even if they wanted to write about real people and situations, the length of time between writing something and it appearing on screen would make that impossible. So they have instead created a fictional world in which absurd things happen to harassed people. Reality often emulates that fiction. But the actors in the show are not impersonating real people. We wouldn't know where to start, and we wouldn't have the flexibility to improvise if all we were doing was copying someone we'd watched on the telly.

All in a spin

I did some research to enable me to play the part. A former female cabinet minister gave me a few helpful insights into the exhaustion and pressure that the likes of Nicola live with. It's useful, when you're playing a scene in Malcolm Tucker's office, to have a sense of what your character's day has been like: how much sleep she will have had (not much), whether there will have been time for lunch (probably not), whether she will have found a minute to reapply her make-up, or whether she will look a bit of a mess (no, and therefore yes). It was from the minister that the idea of Nicola wearing comfy trainers around the office came, something the writers delighted in.

I also spoke to someone who had helped politicians with media management. I wanted to know what would make a politician a spin doctor's nightmare. His answer was chillingly simple: "If she believed in things."

I took those thoughts to Armando, and he and the writers did the rest. Nicola Murray is, in effect, the politician I would have become if, at 17, I hadn't changed my mind. Because the writing is so brilliant, I was able to play a complex character who means well, does badly, and feels knackered. And just to keep Malcolm awake at night, she believes in things.

Rebecca Front won a Bafta in June for her performance as Nicola Murray in "The Thick of It"

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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