Why politicians should always be picky eaters

The fact is, eating often does unflattering things to the face. Far better to follow Thatcher's example and steer clear.

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With only a fortnight to go, I know that you’re worried you haven’t heard enough about this whole election thing already. Me, too, but never fear; this column is not immune to the general air of thrilled anticipation that has swept the country like a bad case of salmonella – in particular, the glorious rise of the food-related photo op.

Politicians like to be pictured eating to demonstrate that they’re just like everybody else – less potentially divisive than a pint (unless you’re Nigel Farage of course, who thrives on both drink and division) and easier to work with than screaming babies.

That said, bringing food into the equation can be a dangerous game. Who can forget that arch-Islingtonite, Peter Mandelson, mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in his prospective Hartlepool constituency, even though the whole thing turned out to be a myth put about by a mischievous Neil Kinnock?

In truth, Mandelson’s tastes do seem to run more towards granola and green tea (a habit he claims to have picked up from Cherie Blair’s guru Carole Caplin) than cod and chips, but the notoriously vain king of spin would never be stupid enough to be snapped actually tucking into either.

As he well knows, eating often does unflattering things to the face, as Ed Miliband found to his cost last year. Hence the picture of Margaret Thatcher gingerly holding an “absolutely enormous” Big Mac at arm’s length at the opening of the McDonald’s UK head office in Finchley in 1983. The Iron Lady would hardly have risked her lipstick in public.

It is also telling that the only public photograph that exists of Winston Churchill – a man of prodigious, if plain appetites – at table shows him sitting in front of a slice of untouched melon. (Now there’s a man who’s unlikely ever to have brandished a banana suggestively for the cameras.)

But things have moved on, and today’s media demand their pound of (chargrilled) flesh: hence Cameron’s recent dilemma when presented with a hot dog on the campaign trail. Following Buttygate, he could hardly pick it up, so instead, perhaps on the advice of panicked aides, he played it safe with a knife and fork.

This seems a peculiarly foolish choice for a man beset by accusations of unapologetic poshness, particularly when he has form on the frankfurter front, putting one away during a basketball game with Barack back in 2012 without a splash of sauce in sight. (And if ever there was a politician who’s guaranteed to look cooler than you eating a sausage, it’s our Obama.)

By contrast, it seems Nick Clegg has learned more from his years in office than simply to steer clear of rash promises. Although there was a paella bubbling away on the stove when he invited television cameras into his kitchen at the beginning of the month, he wisely chose to forsake any close encounters of the shellfish kind in favour of a (very moderate) glass of white wine. Indeed, and perhaps with one eye on future coalitions, it was Clegg who sprang to the defence of poor Ed last year, questioning whether anyone could look “very elegant” while eating a sandwich.

He got away lightly, though; if you’re a politician, just being in the same room as some food can get you into trouble, as George Osborne found when he innocently tweeted a snapshot of his dinner al-desko and received a roasting for his choice of “POSH diner” where a “gourmet” takeaway costs “almost £10” (capitalisation courtesy of the Sun).

But for the awful proof of just what we’re getting ourselves into here, I invite you to google “Michele Bachmann corn dog”. Be afraid, people, be very afraid. I’ve never said it before, and I’ll probably never say it again, but perhaps Margaret Thatcher had a point.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!