In the long and rancid history of British parliamentary democracy, has there ever been an MP like Jess Phillips? Barely half a year after being elected for Birmingham Yardley in the Labour interest, she is already a few Twitterstorms away from joining Adele and Nigella in the pantheon of British women who require no surname. On her current trajectory, she will soon just be “Jess” – as in: “Blimey, mate, strike a light, you’ll never believe what Jess only went and said in the House the other day.”
What Jess only went and said yesterday, in a video chat with columnist Owen Jones, concerned a leader with whom she seems less than wholly satisfied. Asked if Labour could win an election under Jeremy Corbyn, she considered the question for 0.000027 seconds before replying: “No, if the election was called today.” Adding that four years is a longer time in politics even than a week – you can’t argue with her maths; if she ever goes down the celebrity route (see below), Carol Vorderman’s old Countdown job is a possible – she went on to say if she still regards Corbyn as a hindrance nearer the election, she won’t stab him in the back. She will “stab him in the front.”
Linguistically, by her own potty-mouthed standards, the quote sounds restrained. Jess’s finest work to date came some months ago, when Diane Abbott imperiously rebuked her for attacking the leader’s failure to give any of the grandest shadow cabinet jobs to a woman. You may recall Jess reporting that: “I ‘told her to fuck off’.” And whatever, she was asked, did Abbott do? “She fucked off.”
Is it any wonder that almost everyone has a huge crush on Jess? She’s young, she’s ballsy, she’s smart, she’s sassy, she’s passionate, she’s naughty (as she told Julie Burchill), she’s “cute” (as Burchill put it when she wrote up the interview as a billet doux). And she is funny. Not “politician funny”, by which I mean you laugh at something Little George Osborne said because his tone hinted at humorous intent. You know, the way a snooker crowd desperate for a break in the tension explodes with mirth if Mark Selby, the alleged Jester from Leicester, says “oops” after dropping his chalk. She is actually, genuinely funny.
Take her reaction yesterday, when some typically cerebral social media correspondents chose to interpret that “stab him in the front” remark as a literal threat to assassinate Jeremy Corbyn. “Just so we can get the record straight,” she blogged in reply, “and by that I don’t mean literally getting a record and unbending it. So let’s start again. I want to be clear and transparent, by which I of course do not mean that I wish literally for people to be able to see through me...” Now that’s funny.
And funny, as the old-time comics of the Caitskills liked to say, is good. In politics, indeed, it’s better than good. It is worth its weight in enriched uranium. It vaporises the protective shell of pomposity surrounding cretinous critics while, due to its rarity value, it has an incredibly long half-life. On paper, “she fucked off” may not look enough to earn a standing ovation from the Algonquin Round Table. But it’s a million times funnier than “savaged by a dead sheep”, and more than 30 years later Denis Healey’s aperçu is still celebrated as the apex of Wildean wit.
Now factor into this golden equation a seductive Brummie accent, a good mind, a passionate heart, and a maturity denied colleagues twice her age (she is 34). She rejects the tribal loyalties which plague politics as they plague all human affairs, openly liking and admiring some Tory MPs, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, regardless of doctrinal differences. And she handles social-media nastiness with the same sardonic disdain as Stella Creasy, that other outstanding Labour backbencher and touted future leader. Both know that a droll stiletto is far more effective against moronic online thuggery than any piledriver of outrage.
When asked in interviews about her ultimate ambition, Jess seems to alternate between a slot on Strictly Come Dancing and becoming prime minister. The first is a gimme. The second is a shade more challenging. Some people are already thinking of her as Labour’s messiah. Given the disarray and bemusement as the party careers towards civil war, it is easy to see why. Who else in her party clears that crucial “Would-you-want-a-pint-them?” test by such a margin? With Jess, you’d want six pints (with chasers), followed by an all-nighter dancing to Eighties music in a club, followed by a fry-up, a couple of Bloody Marys, lunch, shopping and a pyjama party with weeping at Love Story and Beaches the next night.
Who knows whether she has the discipline and commitment, let alone the tolerance of mind-numbing tedium, to build a front-bench career (assuming that experience becomes a post-Corbyn prerequisite for leadership once again). Perhaps the grind of combat politics, its debilitating reflex sexism and the misery of Labour’s unending trek through the electoral wilderness will wear her down and she’ll cash in the fame for a few weeks in the arms of a Russian pretty boy in a sequined blouse. For now, all you can hope is that Jess sticks around to complete this compelling political science experiment – and resolves the conundrum of whether it is possible to be a warm, open, mischievous, funny and normal person who speaks fluent human, and prosper in the android factory cesspit of Westminster.
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