Stop all these savage cartoons? Fat chance

Gordon Brown has complained that cartoonists make him look too fat – and the outrageous barbs of cartoonists have undermined more than one parliamentary reputation. Mark Hughes reports

He considers himself to be a political heavyweight, but it appears that Gordon Brown doesn't like being drawn as one. It has emerged this weekend that he has complained to newspaper cartoonists that they draw him on the rather large side – "fat" was the word the PM used.

Mr Brown is known to have brought the subject up with at least two national newspaper artists, including The Independent's Dave Brown, pulling them up on their portrayal of him and insisting: "I'm not that fat." A touch vain? Perhaps.

But, in complaining, he joins a host of image-conscious politicians who fret over the way in which they are parodied in the media.

The most famous victim was John Major, for whom satirists never ceased to find new metaphors for boring. The television puppet show Spitting Image portrayed the then-Prime Minister as a grey-skinned dullard who ate dinner with his wife in silence, while The Guardian's cartoonist Steve Bell notoriously depicted Major as a gormless superhero who wore his underpants on the outside of his trousers. Major is reported to have said: "It is designed to destabilise me, so I ignore it."

The former Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was likewise haunted by his image on Spitting Image: he appeared as a slimy giant slug. At the time, he claimed to be merely nonplussed, but later he described the show as cruel: "It kicked people, and figuratively cut off their arms and legs." David Steel, the former leader of the Liberal Party, blamed his portrayal on the show as a squeaky-voiced midget – literally in the pocket of his Social Democratic Party counterpart David Owen – for the failure of his party's alliance with the SDP. Steel later said he was "rather cruelly portrayed as being a little thing in David Owen's pocket, which was wonderfully inaccurate but very funny. When you came back to the House of Commons on a Monday after the Sunday evening show people would always refer to it." Owen has since said: "I think David was damaged by it."

And William Hague, another former Conservative leader, took issue with the fact that cartoonists would draw him as a tiny child in comparison to his political equivalent, Tony Blair, when in fact they were of similar stature.

Denis Healey, the former Labour chancellor, was one of the first politicians to fall victim to satirical parody, mercilessly taunted by the comedian Mike Yarwood to the point that the catchphrase "Silly Billy" was thought to have been a direct quote from the politician, when in reality he never said it. Mr Healey said yesterday: "Yarwood was absolutely brilliant and I thought his impression of me was very funny. In fact, it was so good that he once did it on a radio show and my daughter thought it was me.

"Things like that never bother me, maybe because most cartoons and things like that have always been quite nice about me."

Healey added: "I'd imagine the people who were portrayed quite harshly, like Mrs Thatcher for example, didn't like it, and understandably so. But people have to remember that it is just a caricature, an impression, and it's not real. John Major was made to appear very dull and boring, but I thought he was a nice chap."

Mr Brown, The Independent's cartoonist, echoes that thought: "It is never a personal attack on the politician or how they look. It is a comment on their politics and what they may be doing wrong professionally. If it is an attack it isan attack on what they stand for, never what they look like."

Nonetheless many politicians take their portrayal in cartoons very seriously – some buy offending cartoons from the artists in an attempt to show that it has not wounded them.

David Blunkett was reported to have a junior press officer phone him and describe how he had been portrayed in that morning's newspapers.

The former Conservative shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe – who is another politician often caricatured somewhat unflatteringly in press cartoons – says she has only ever been offended by one newspaper cartoon and it was one that attacked her policies rather than her looks or personality.

"It was in The Independent," she said yesterday. "I had suggested that we should have secure reception centres for immigrants. The cartoon was of a train driving immigrants into an Auschwitz-style concentration camp. It was the only time that I have ever been offended by anything like that.

"Sometimes you think the cartoons are a bit unfair, but mostly they are very funny, and I have a vast collection of various cartoonists' drawings of me. If Gordon Brown has felt the need to complain, then it is he who is lacking a full sense of proportion."

Stephen Pound, the Labour MP for Ealing North, added his name to the (long) list of politicians who claim to be utterly unaffected by the often unflattering portrayals.

"I've been drawn as a bald, chain-smoking thug but I couldn't care less, to be perfectly honest with you," he said, in riper language.

"To complain is a bit like sailors complaining about the sea. Criticism, as an MP, comes with the job. The public pay me so they can play with me as far as I'm concerned."

He added: "I knew from the day I was born that I was never going to be the Brad Pitt of Hanwell.

"But it can be quite a shock for my daughter to see cartoons of me looking menacing. She's spat her Coco Pops out in shock a few times."