Inside Story: It's voters I want, not readers
From running with the dogs to fleeing the pack, the path from political correspondent to MP is well worn. Colin Brown charts the progress of the latest crop
Monday 10 July 2006
Ruth Kelly hosted a party for the press at the newly christened Department for Communities and Local Government recently. It was the first time some journalists had been invited into the glass-and-steel office block at Eland House for wine and canapés. Her predecessor, John Prescott, was not friendly with the press. Kelly, as an ex-Guardian journalist, is obviously hoping to build better relations with her former colleagues than the Deputy Prime Minister did.
Asked what she missed most about not being a journalist, she said: "Not being able to poke fun at ministers."
Some of her colleagues are more direct. They privately admit that the main thing they miss about switching from the office computer to the Commons chamber is power.
More than one columnist-turned-MP has complained that having become a humble backbencher, they have lost all their influence. At one time they had MPs running after them to be quoted in their pieces. Now all they have are constituents calling with complaints, and ministers giving them the cold shoulder. "I had more power when I had my column," said one disgruntled Labour MP. "Now I can't write at all, because the only story the newspapers want is an attack on Tony Blair and I won't do that."
Politics and journalism have always been bedfellows. Perhaps the best practitioner of both trades was Winston Churchill. Few have been as happy at doing both as he was. Today's journalists have not fared nearly so well when they have entered Parliament. A few, like Ruth Kelly, have made it into the Cabinet, but most have failed to make the same impact on the green benches as they had in print.
Kelly, a former Guardian economics writer, has found it tough delivering policy reforms on the front line for Tony Blair. She had a rough ride at Education where she faced the biggest Labour backbench rebellion on the third reading of a Bill since the Second World War.
Before being moved sideways by Blair to make way for the high-flying ex-postman Alan Johnson, she was described by one former colleague in print as "little Jimmy Krankie with the voice of Arthur Mullard".
Her career is at a crossroads now and if she fails at the local government brief, it could be back to the backbenches when Gordon Brown takes over.
Here are some of the others who have made the journey from journalism to the House of Commons:
The member for: Birmingham Erdington (Labour)
Formerly: Columnist, The Daily Telegraph (1997-2001)
Columnist, the News of the World (2000-2001)
Columnist, the Daily Express (1998)
Once described by Telegraph colleague Boris Johnson as "a radiant vision of grinning New Labour complacency". As a committed moderniser, he said: "The absolute prerequisite to effecting change is retaining power." After entering the Commons, he appeared to miss the power of the pen, but is now reasserting himself, sometimes too abrasively for his own side, defending Blair to the hilt on his decision to go to war in Iraq. What other Labour MPs privately say about him: "When it comes to the final days, he is going to be there with the young boys and the old men. He is basically digging in. They won't be able to drag him out."
The member for: Battersea (Labour)
Formerly: Journalist, The Guardian (1981-97), the Daily Star (1979-81), Labour Weekly (1971-79), Daily Mail (1966-71)
Asked what he missed most about his former life as a journalist, he said: "The expenses!" He has a reputation for being diligent if a bit dour - publications include The Swedish Road to Socialism - and said he would rather be on the green benches doing politics than upstairs in the press gallery writing about it. That is a popular view among his colleagues. He started out on the Daily Mail - regarded as "the Hate Mail" by most Labour MPs - but it was a very different paper in 1966.
The member for: Sunderland South (Labour)
Formerly: Editor of Tribune (1982-84)
Sub-editor, BBC World Service (1974-78)
High-minded but witty former editor of Tribune, the magazine of the Labour left, and author of A Very British Coup. As a writer, he was regarded as "dogged, obsessed by minutiae, identifies with the underdog, and doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks of him". However, he became a minister responsible for Africa and is furious that, having been dropped by Blair, he was never properly replaced. Africa is now represented by a minister in the Lords. He says: "I like to think I come from the inquiring school of journalism. That seems to be an ideal qualification for being an MP. I have always started from the assumption that the official version might not be correct. The trouble with being a journalist is that often they are not capable of accepting responsibility."
The member for: Henley (Conservative)
Formerly: Editor of the Spectator (1999-2005)
Assistant editor and chief political correspondent, The Daily Telegraph (1994-99)
EC correspondent, The Daily Telegraph (1989-94)
Journalist, The Times (1987-88)
The biggest hit on Have I Got News for You. So popular, he has a website dedicated to him. In his maiden speech in the Commons, he said: "Michael Heseltine is a hard act to follow, so I approach this moment with much the same sense of self-doubt as Simba in The Lion King". Bicycling Boris became Bonking Boris after his affair with Petronella Wyatt, the fellow Tory journalist. His deceptively bumbling style has disarmed his enemies and, after a time in the sin bin, he was brought back by David Cameron on to the front bench as higher education spokesman. But even friends are still left wondering: why on earth is he in Parliament where his talents are totally wasted? Chris Mullin (see above) said: "Brilliant journalist. But not taken seriously as a politician..."
The member for: Bromsgrove (Conservative)
Formerly: Political correspondent, The Daily Telegraph (1992-96)
Producer, ITN (1989-92)
Producer, BBC news and current affairs (1986-89)
Researcher, Yorkshire TV (1983-86)
The daughter of a lorry driver, she is seen as a right-wing populist by some, but is a moderniser. She is more than capable of holding her own on Question Time and enjoys teasing Labourites. When she was a journalist, her liking for black leather miniskirts had the Tory boys palpitating in the lobby and she married Tory MP Andrew MacKay. Given the dearth of Tory women in high places, she should have become a young star of the Tory front bench after being promoted as shadow culture minister. She resigned to spend more time with her young children when Michael Howard demoted her to shadowing a corner of the Foreign Office. She supported David Davis for the leadership - which may not have helped her career prospects when David Cameron won, although her husband was brought back into the fold. Likely to make a comeback if the Tories win power.
The member for: Eastleigh (Liberal Democrat)
Formerly: Business and city editor, The Independent (1991-94)
Economics and assistant editor, Independent on Sunday (1990-91)
Leader writer, economics editor and columnist, The Guardian (1980-90)
Brussels correspondent, The Economist (1977-80)
Trainee, Liverpool Daily Post and Echo (1976-77)
Former MEP, he ran a respectable race for the Lib Dem leadership as the dark horse candidate and earned his place as tax-raising environment spokesman. He says: "As a journalist, you can put things on the agenda through a column or a news story that as a backbencher you would find it difficult to do. But you are always a spectator with a very good seat in the stalls. Occasionally you must feel like clambering on the stage because you think you can do a much better job than the people on it."
The member for: Pontefract and Castleford (Labour)
Formerly: Leader writer and economics columnist for The Independent (1992-95)
Married to Ed Balls - the other half of Westminster's Golden Couple. Won fast promotion from the backbench as Public Health Minister when Alan Milburn was Health Secretary, but she's found it more difficult than expected to impress. She arrived with New Labour credentials and was described as the "dazzling star of the Blairite nomenklatura" - which would make her blush. She championed action on child poverty in a Fabian lecture but, in a big boys' world, had trouble being heard. She was moved into Prescott's department when her career seemed to be at a crossroads. Held on to her local government job and is likely to go higher when Brown takes over. Not given to political risk-taking, but she admitted: "I did try cannabis while at university.''
The member for: Normanton (Labour)
Formerly: Economics leader writer and columnist for The Financial Times (1990-94)
Gordon Brown's former adviser, Balls was given a meteoric rise by his former boss to be made Economic Secretary to the Treasury in the last reshuffle. Brainy and brawny, Balls coined the almost unpronounceable phrase "neoclassical endogenous growth theory" for a speech by Brown. It was later ridiculed by Michael Heseltine as "not Brown's - it's Balls'". Married to Yvette Cooper, a former economics correspondent for The Independent. They also have neighbouring seats and the Boundary Commission has just proposed that Ed's should be merged with others next door, including his wife's. He's vowed to fight it but it could mean trouble in the household if he loses. Seats apart, he has never looked back since leaving the FT. One of the few journalists who are better at the politics than writing about it.
The member for: Surrey Heath (Conservative)
Formerly: Leader writer, comment editor, news editor and assistant editor, The Times (1996-2005)
Reporter, BBC news and current Affairs (1991-96)
Researcher/reporter, Scottish TV (1990-91)
Reporter, Aberdeen Press and Journal (1989)
Alfred E Neuman lookalike and frequent panellist on the BBC's Question Time. He is part of the intellectual right which laid the ground for the arrival of David Cameron, and wrote the biography of Michael Portillo - The Future of the Right. He was a Portillista but now is a Cameroon, with his front bench job as shadow minister for housing. Has his own website. May be a highbrow, but was able to write knowledgeably about Alan Johnson's favourite band, the Super Furry Animals. Apologised for rubbishing The X Factor: Battle of the Stars after being melted by the "transformation of the EastEnders actress Lucy Benjamin from nervous wallflower to a diva who could wrench a heart with a single note at 50 paces". With a populist nose like this, he will go far.
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