The Top 10: Pop Culture References by Leading Politicians

From the sublime to the demotic

John Rentoul
Friday 15 October 2021 09:56
<p>In 2007, Vince Cable said Gordon Brown went from ‘Stalin’ to ‘Mr Bean’ </p>

In 2007, Vince Cable said Gordon Brown went from ‘Stalin’ to ‘Mr Bean’

Thanks to Paul T Horgan for suggesting this list, after the prime minister of the UK quoted Kermit the Frog in his address to the United Nations general assembly, and the leader of HM Opposition said he thought it was time for a female Bond. Paul then set the rules to exclude politicians quoting songs, which narrowed it down a bit.

1. The dead parrot sketch. Margaret Thatcher was persuaded to quote it in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1990, although she asked her advisers if they were sure people would find it funny (they did). Nominated by Ed Lennox, Robert Wright and David Boothroyd. She also had a scary line after she was prime minister about the film The Mummy Returns when she spoke at an election rally in 2001. Thanks to David Robinson.

2. The Waltons and The Simpsons. George H W Bush made a speech about family values in 1992, arguing Americans should be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons”. At the start of the next episode of The Simpsons, Bart replied: “Hey, we’re like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.” Thanks to Stewart Slater, Robert Wright, XLibris1 and Adam Behr.

3. Murphy Brown. Dan Quayle, US vice president, criticised the title character for choosing to be a single parent in 1992. The TV show retaliated by dedicating the first episode of the next season to the subject, ending with a truckload of potatoes being dumped in front of the vice president’s residence. Thanks to Stewart Slater.

4. Batman. Labour produced posters depicting a masked Norman Lamont as “Vatman” in the 1992 election after he put VAT up to 17.5 per cent. Thanks to Thomas Penny.

5. Coronation Street. Tony Blair demanded the release from prison of a fictional character, Deirdre Rachid, in 1998. Thanks to Jimmy H Sands. He also later told William Hague in the debate on the Queen’s Speech in 2000, “You are the Weakest Link; goodbye,” although Paul Ramon and Steven Thomas said he had the decency to look a bit embarrassed about it.

6. Flash Gordon. “Not Flash. Just Gordon.” Labour poster for the election that never was in 2007. Thanks to Mark Worgan.

7. Mr Bean. Vince Cable said Gordon Brown had gone from “Stalin” to Rowan Atkinson’s character later in 2007. Nominated by Mark D, Ian Moss and Toby Dickinson.

8. Esure car insurance. David Cameron said, “Calm down, dear,” the catchphrase of Michael Winner in the TV ad, to Angela Eagle, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, in Prime Minister’s Questions in 2011. Thanks to David Mills and Matt Brannigan.

9. The dab. Tom Watson, Labour deputy leader, celebrated a telling point made by Jeremy Corbyn in Prime Minister’s Questions in 2017 with the dance move. Nominated by Mark D.

10. Shaka sign. Thumb and little finger as demonstrated by Theresa May at a pop festival in 2017. Nominated by Steven Fogel as an attempt to distract from the “Dancing Queen” entrance to May’s 2018 Tory party conference speech. 

No room, then, for Ronald Reagan, “Win one for the Gipper”, a reference to his role in Knute Rockne: All American, 1940, not so much popular as forgotten culture (nominated by Stewart Slater and Ian Thomas). Bono comparing Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to a songwriting duo fell foul of the No Beatles rule (Mark D). And the description of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as the “Chuckle Brothers” was applied to them (first by Danny Kennedy, chair of the Ulster Unionist Party, according to McGuinness) rather than by them (Mark D again).

Next week: Actors who changed careers as a result of playing a part, such as Virginia McKenna, who set up the Born Free Foundation after playing the part of Joy Adamson in the film.

Coming soon: Words for nothing.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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