When Donald Trump was elected president of the US, critics lamented that the reality show The Apprentice had infected the body politic. Now, we have been inflicted with the reverse. Yes, as if it hadn’t ruined enough already, politics has come along to corrupt television’s most valiantly exhausted format.
Channel 4’s new six-week reality series Make Me Prime Minister – which airs on Tuesday nights at 9.15pm – is, simply, The Apprentice with policy. Oak-panelled studies stand in for strip-lit board rooms, the bongs of Big Ben echo where the urgent strings of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet should be. Instead of former estate agents hawking overpriced fish cakes to confused pedestrians, we have 12 wannabe politicos selling uncosted education reforms to a studio audience.
Make Me Prime Minister has all the tropes Apprentice aficionados like me know and love to hate. Irrelevant boasts (“I’ve been arrested three times and dragged through a hedge backwards”). Use of the phrase “skill set”. Tears. Tautological statements (“our vision is the future!”). A Labour curmudgeon and no-nonsense baroness overseeing proceedings. A WordArt-esque title graphic. And, of course, the standard direct address of Apprentice vernacular, “yourself” (if you know, you know – or rather, yourself knows).
Contestants compete in two teams to win challenges set by Two Political Heavyweights: an inevitable Alastair Campbell, still reciting “education, education, education” with fatherly pride; and the peer and former Tory party chair Sayeeda Warsi. Both wear the same pitiful expressions they’ve perfected over years of disappointment in their own parties.
Twiddling his glasses in studied scepticism, Campbell – described by the voiceover as “Tony Blair’s rottweiler” – is supposed to be the grumpy Alan Sugar of the piece. But sadly for the producers, he seems to have mellowed since his first outing on Channel 4 (when, as No 10’s spin doctor, he infamously jabbed his finger repeatedly at Jon Snow). His version of “yer fired” is the rather anaemic: “You are not ready to be prime minister.” Ever speaking truth to power (and/or marketing consultants and paralegals).
Every week, each team appoints a new “PM” (so roughly the same turnover as the British government since 2016, then) to lead them – a “project manager”, in old money. There is no random noun-off to decide team names – Decadence! Eclipse! Viscosity! – like there is on The Apprentice though (a big mark down in my book). Jackie Weaver, of having-“no authority”-on-Handforth-parish-council fame, reveals her identity to her teammates: “It’s Jackie f**king Weaver!” delightedly cries another contestant, the venue operator Danny.
Yet their team ends up being led by Darius, a bright-eyed 23-year-old whose family fled Afghanistan when he was a baby. Their rivals pick Natalie, a 36-year-old medical entrepreneur. The serious political task, launching a new education policy, promptly leads to Darius’s teammates brainstorming that he should dance around a maypole for the press. “No, no, I don’t think we should go ahead with that,” he moots. Reader, he did go ahead with that.
Natalie also does her bit to degrade public office, however. She dresses up as a robot and speaks gobbledygook to some silent children. “I wouldn’t describe either of them as policy,” comes Campbell’s searing analysis. Save it for the podcast, Al.
This mayhem is all covered by real-life political journos wearing impressive poker faces, who grill Natalie into saying that teaching coding is more important than foreign languages, which you can get on Google Translate nowadays anyway – although, she concedes, “it’s not perfect” (hence the need for better coders, presumably). Darius somehow blurts that the Ofsted budget would be better spent on flower crowns, or something. The Mail has a fictional field day.
Returning to their respective cabinet rooms for a debrief, Darius faces his mutinous ministers. An incomprehensible argument follows. “It’s not about otherwise!” he protests at one point. “It is about otherwise,” the others confirm, gravely. “It is about otherwise.”
Each PM then announces their policy and answers questions in front of a voting audience. Whoever loses the vote is given the option to do the “honourable thing” and resign, a clunking device that might as well read “[cue wry laughter]”. And that is the fundamental problem with this programme. Its knowing references to recent chicanery in Downing Street are not so much on the nose as in your face.
When Darius is offered “an opportunity now to exercise judgement” and decide whether or not to stand down, we are forced to remember Boris Johnson clinging on in No 10 while his ministers quit. Not something I need reminding of after an anaesthetising hour of Bake Off. Even a pivotal bit of the policy challenge – finding “a way to pay for it” – feels like a nod to a quaint relic of British political history. For weary audiences, watching individuals questionably fit for public office argue and flounder is less entertainment and more, well, The News. And, as art imitates life, it all somehow ends up with a refugee being booted out.
[See also: Does Tony Blair’s new centrist project have any answers?]