Chase the MP and savage the carcass

The sketch writer must amuse or die, so sometimes it's the politicians who suffer death by a thousand cuts, as Edward Pearce explains
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The Independent Online

They are odd people, the political sketch writers. They are spectators who run on to the pitch and get paid for it the parliamentary amphibians resented by real journalists (straight-faced men, with redundant shorthand and untrustworthy recording gear) for their large vocabularies, addict's craving for metaphor and the maddening way politicians turn to them first.

"They were queuing up for your book in the library," a friendly MP told me of a collection of Daily Telegraph sketches, "and turning straight to the index." The question, "What did he say about me?" is pleasurable to the man who, cramped in a rook's nest above the Speaker's chair or struggling before his screen with the injunction "Amuse or die", actually said it.

For once, I was one of them a colour man. I have walked those mean streets, done the same mindless verbal violence. Indeed there is a risk that this piece may come to resemble one of those books written by Soviet defectors that retailed sharply in the 1970s. I Believed limps to mind as an example. The sketch writer's equivalent might be "I Gloated".

Last week, Gordon Brown's descent into the infernal underworld of dancing fiends, red-hot toasting forks and decomposition provoked all the gloating you could ask for.

Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail, although surprisingly nice, is a clever lad. He mainlines on top-grade metaphor and is liable, when high, to be something of a public danger. Onlookers on Wednesday the first day of the Great Funding Scandal read of "RSPCA inspectors at an abattoir watching a warm carcass being fed to a fast-rotating blade". Not nice.

But a week earlier, on 20 November, before things turned really bad, the Prime Minister had merely been a toss-up between Stan Laurel and Inspector Clouseau. And Harriet Harman got away with being "spectral, petite, feet pressed to-gether, hands clasped, lips pursed". It didn't last. Quentin got on to "those bunched-up bags on top of his cheek bones" which had turned dark. "Have the medics keep an eye on that man, Cap'*."

Sketchers do not like it, however, when politicians cross demarcation lines and say witty things themselves. The Lib Dems' caretaker leader, Vincent Cable he of of the Les Dawson one-liners, Manchester accent and entire command of the relevant facts was described by one of the sketch writers, Quentin of the Mail or Simon (Hoggart) of The Guardian (they blur a bit), as "having a voice like a sheep with tummy ache". That piece of sub-felicity reflects the trade union mentality once voiced by the great Michael White: "We tell the jokes here."

But Mr Cable, who had graduated from "Vicious Vince" on 24 November to "Mordant Vince" on the 29th, is not going to be treated like Gordon Brown ever. He might say something terminal about a sketch writer, and the whole order of society would come tumbling down. "We do the gloating here," say Quentin and Simon nervously.

They do the gloating, also the sniffing the wind for change, the fancying of horses and the cheeking of Cabinet ministers. Usually they get away with it depends on your paper. I was sacked once, from the Sunday Express. "Insufficiently loyal to Mrs Thatcher", the proprietor explained.

But they do matter matter in the way that Shakespeare's strolling actors in Hamlet were "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time". And Hamlet warned Polonius to be nice to them. Which on the whole they are or were.

Mark Lawson, the BBC's all- purpose arts man, had a year in the gallery and compared it favourably with life on an aisle seat as a theatre critic. "Say something cutting about the latest Prince Hal, and his agent is on the phone. 'You might like to know they had to take Rodney's anti-depressants away from him after the cruel things you said.' Whereas, beat up a politician in print and he rings up himself. 'You were a bit rough on Thursday, old boy. Come to lunch.' "

That, though, was a few years back when there were nice sophisticates like Julian Critchley or indeed and I speak from experience John Prescott who would do just that. New Labour Person (and they are persons) doesn't do lunch, doesn't see jokes. Caroline Flint, I have been told (by Old Labour sources), reproved a colleague for reading Another Newspaper. "It criticises Tony," she is said to have commented. New Labour women have migrated, most of them, from an alternative life as chief wardresses.

Some sketch writers also double as tipsters and even have opinions. The late and exalted Frank Johnson looked down and pointed out to this novice an amazingly lucid and amusing Tory speaking to a junior shadow's brief around 1978. "Name of Kenneth Clarke. He's good, very good. Wrong side, unfortunately." That was an odd thing. Not being a Tory lots of people are that. But Frank Johnson had a refined, almost Hidalgo, sense of humour. The Queen of the Night would have liked to have jokes arrested. But being a political sketch writer, Frank gritted his teeth and stayed loyal.

Mostly, though, we have been fribbles. And sometimes self-important fribbles such as current sketch writers who take it on themselves to tell Gordon Brown that his position may be untenable, or toy run campaigns against some detested object with, invariably, no effect.

A bad sign in a political wit is when he invents funny names and keeps the joke going. Henry Lucy, in the gallery for Punch in the 1890s and 1900s, called Arthur Balfour, the etiolated and aloof Prime Minister, "Prince Arthur" every week. Bernard Levin, "Taper" of The Spectator in the 1950s and 1960s, had a thing about Selwyn Lloyd, a durable Tory politician who colluded with the French and Israelis during Suez (nice bloke, though). He sat for Wirral and had briefly served in local government. "Taper" christened him Hoylake UDC. This was Levin's metropolitan scorn for a politician who had lowered himself to being a district councillor. Lloyd's response was to stay in a succession of jobs in the Foreign Office, the Treasury and leadership of the House. Even under a Labour government he stayed in power, becoming a very successful Speaker.

It is a warning to the uppity streak huddling in all colour men. Abstract chronicle of the times or not, they are still players.

Edward Pearce is a former sketch writer for 'The Daily Telegraph' and 'New Statesman'

The sketchers...

Quentin Letts

The sketch writer for the 'Daily Mail' for almost a decade. Although he can be described as having Tory leanings, he is not a devoted supporter. He has enjoyed the patronage of 'Mail' editor Paul Dacre, whose political instincts are similar.

Last week he said of Gordon Brown's performance at Prime Minster's questions: "Labour MPs sitting behind Mr Brown grimaced. They could have been RSPCA inspectors at an abattoir... Defence Secretary Des Browne was slumped, hunched, wishing he were a thousand miles away, even in hottest Helmand. Anywhere but here, beside the smouldering wreckage of his leader."

Simon Hoggart

The son of Richard Hoggart, author of the celebrated book 'The Uses of Literacy', he grew up in a Labour-supporting home in the north of England. His acidic attacks in 'The Guardian' on the shortcomings of MPs can be both vicious and hysterical at the same time.

On Gordon Brown, he said last week: "It was ghastly - the most horrible, tooth-rattling, goose-pimpling, stomach-heaving Prime Minister's questions since John Prescott filled in for Tony Blair.

I was reminded of the only bullfight I ever saw: the great beast, tormented by the picadors, charging around the ring, lowering his head and bellowing with futile rage and pain."

Simon Carr

Seen by many as the most savage of them all, Simon Carr has had a long association with The Independent. He is also an author and entrepreneur, tantalising readers in a supreme column for over a year about his taking his invention into production before revealing it to be a speaking clock and a nice little earner it has apparently proved too.

He was in waspish form on Thursday after PMQs: "Vince Cable was superb. Again. He is a golden interlude in Liberal Democrat history. He is a holiday in Tuscany (not that you'd want to live there). When he said the PM had gone in a week from Stalin to Mr Bean, there was opposition joy. To be so mocked by a Liberal Democrat, that was a new low point."

Ann Treneman

The 'Times' scribe is a rarity among sketch writers: she is a woman. In a field dominated by egotistical males, she can mix metaphors with the best of them. An opponent of the Iraq war, she often compares the serious business of politics to playground spats between children.

She wrote last week: "It was hard not to shield my eyes. The amount of teeth could only mean things were really bad. My guess is that Gordon Brown wanted something to be whiter than white yesterday and it certainly wasn't going to be his politics. For the next 75 minutes, the smile went on and off like a crazed Belisha beacon.