Peter Mandelson belongs to a man called Derek who lives in suburban Rugby, while William Hague has fallen into the grasp of a Home Counties naturist. Robin Cook is controlled by a celebrity fan-club based in California, and Gordon Brown is owned by an enthusiast living in a mansion block somewhere in north London.
I’m not talking about the politicians, mind you, but their virtual equivalents on the internet. Domain names, the addresses that point to pages on the web, are political hot property in the United States, and are about to become just as sought-after on this side of the Atlantic. As the US presidential election showed, websites offer an unrestricted playground for political comedy, finger-pointing and propaganda.
When they woke up to the internet in about 1998, Al Gore and George Bush raced to mop up every address that might relate to their campaigns: Bush grabbed bush2000.com and its equivalents, while Gore clung on to algore2000.com. That was not enough to stop the amateur satirists – just click on gwbush.com or algore-2000.org to prove it – but at least the real candidates got a look-in.
Not so in Britain. As Mandelson’s cyber-hostage status suggests, the geeks and obsessives snapped up the best names long ago, leaving MPs bereft. Dotcom addresses, the classy internet equiva-lent of a sharp suit, shiny shoes and a silk tie, have fallen into the hands of shadowy American groups such as Blair Holdings Inc of Newark, New Jersey, and Jack Straw Associates of New York.
The more homely co.uk domains have mostly gone, too, often in rather dubious circumstances, leaving ministers and parties to scrap among the deeply uncool .net and .org addresses. And, so far, that is where most of them have settled – except that, like vegan quiche or leather-free sandals, they are not quite right for a new Labour or FreshStart Conservative MP in the public eye. They lack snap.
The search for something snappier will prove tricky for Robin Cook, whose dotcom address has gone to a site hoping to attract fans of an American writer of medical thrillers with titles such as Harmful Intent and Fatal Cure. And pity the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, who is now linked to a site set up by a constituent keen to list bad puns based around his name.
Sharing their frustration is Mandelson, beaten to the net by Derek Johnson from Rugby, who has registered most variants of Mandelson’s name. The Northern Ireland Secretary’s office did ring to ask why Johnson had done this, and whether they might have their boss’s name back, but his mother answered the phone and they hadn’t the heart to put the frighteners on her.
So far, Mandelson’s name is only in limbo, registered but unused. Johnson could sell it to an enemy, who might power it up and make trouble – scope, perhaps, for close friends of Gordon Brown. Visitors in search of the WiddyWeb who take a wrong turning – to annwiddecombe.com – are greeted with a banner advising: “Ann, don’t smoke da reefer.”
Check the international register, and you will find that williamhague.org.uk was safely tucked away by William Hague’s campaign team just eight days after John Major lost the 1997 election – quick thinking, even if the achievement is somewhat diminished by the site now being empty. But the jewel among Hague addresses, williamhague.com, points not to the man who would be prime minister, but to what can only be described as a very complete colour picture of a naked Bill Hague – a naturist from Surrey.
Perhaps web-abduction is today’s equivalent of appearing on Spitting Image. The famous acquire a sort of online trophy stalker. Not being famous enough to be usurped is a bit like being ignored by Private Eye. Bad news, then, for the Liberal Democrat front bench – and even for one or two members of the Cabinet. Still available are alistairdarling.com and alanmilburn.com, although Stephen Byers has lost out to a computer programmer.
Still free, too, are the addresses of that pair of new Labour fixers, Derry Irvine and Charlie Falconer. A more obvious target, Alastair Campbell, has already gone to a man in west London, about whom we know little except that he is most certainly not the Prime Minister’s press secretary. Backbenchers of all parties have been more or less ignored.
So what happens next, now that the oddballs have nicked all the best names? A few MPs have tried adding their titles, but sirpatrickcormack.co.uk lacks a certain cyber-something. We tremble to think of the cyber-consequences of Sir Patrick’s elevation to some future Cabinet: therthonsirpatrickcormack.co.uk might stick in a browser’s throat. We have so far been spared baronessthatcherofkesteven.co.uk.
Time for some ministerial action, perhaps. Britain’s politicians should demand their own top-level domains: .newcom, or .newbritain. And what about whague@freshstart.England?
Although there is a funny side, MPs who wake up to the fate of their names may soon fail to see it. The internet already shapes politics, and is about to do so even more. Polls after the US election showed that 30 per cent of voters used the net to decide how they voted; who knows, without slate.com’s famous list of Bushisms, Florida might never have happened. Expect Britain’s next general election to generate similar levels of web enthusiasm. That is, if voters keen to discover whether the government has a clue how to restore the railways are not scared off after visiting johnprescott.com and confronting the site of yet another American real-estate agent.
Another web-hijack? Or a public-private partnership too far – Prezza’s ultimate solution for cracked rails?
Julian Glover works for the Guardian