Annus Horribilis Extracts

These extracts begin with my “cast of characters” and continue with three sketches (the book contains more than 100), which begin with the appearance of Fred “the Shred” Goodwin before the Treasury Select Committee and then moves to the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and her famous bathplug. I conclude with a sketch from May as MPs struggle to come to terms with the expenses scandal in all its moated glory.

Cast of Characters

Gordon Brown: Brooding, intense, intellectual Prime Minister. Prone to car crash politics. Believed to be “psychologically flawed”. Worst trait: Temper (he throws phones). Nicknames: Stalin, Mr Bean, Macavity (he’s not there), Great Clunking Fist.

Alistair Darling: Dull, droning Scot. A survivor who has been just about everything. Now Chancellor who has stood up to Gordon on more than one occasion. Best trait: Eyebrows (birds are nesting in them). Nickname: Too dull to have one.

Peter Mandelson: The man twice forced to resign under Tony Blair was reborn in the autumn as Gordon Brown’s confidante, becoming Baron Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool. Wields mega-power. Thin-skinned. Best trait: Fabulous silky manner. Knicknames: Prince of Darkness, Machievelli, the Real Deputy Prime Minister.

Jacqui Smith: The first female Home Secretary (rtd). Ex-schoolteacher and former Chief Whip more famous for her expenses and her cleavage than any actual policies.

Best trait: Nothing comes to mind. Knickname: “Bathplug”.

Harriet Harman: Dogmatic feminist elected as Labour’s deputy leader. Hated by many, adored by the Volumpts, an all-female group of MPs. Best trait: never briefs against others, rare in politics. Knickname: Harriet Harperson.

Hazel Blears: Community Secretary (rtd): Fiery redhead. Crashed and burned in the spring in badly timed resignation involving a badge that said: “Rocking the boat”. Best slogan: Nuts about Hazel. Knickname: Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the Duracell Bunny.

 

The Tories

David Cameron: The real heir to Blair. Etonian. Keen cyclist who has recast the Tory party as the New Conservatives. Seen as shallow, also brutal. Best trait: ability to look clean. Knicknames: Mr Sunshine, Little Lord Faulteroy and, of course, Dave.

George Osborne. Quick witted Shadow Chancellor with a scorpion like streak of political malevolence. Hated by Labour and Lib-Dems alike. Wallpaper heir. Best trait: Mischievous. Knickname: Georgie Porgie.

 

The Others

Nick Clegg: Smoothie leader of the Lib-Dems. Looks too much like Dave. Good political strategist (e.g. the Gurkha victory). No one remembers anything he says except that he’s slept with 30 women. Knickname: Clegg-Over.

Vince Cable: the only Lib-Dem who anyone really listens to. The voice of sanity in the credit crunch. Best trait: ability to sum up what’s going on in a pithy phrase or sentence. Knickname: In-Vince-Able.

John McFall: Dour dry-witted Scot, head of the Treasury Select Committee, determined to make his name as the man who called the Masters of the Universe to account. It didn’t quite turn out that way but he did his best.

Michael Martin: Chippy Glaswegian. Former sheet-metal worker. Elected as Speaker for now unfathomable reasons in 2000. Knickname: Gorbals Mick.

 

11 February: Bonfire of the vanities

The big four failed bankers, including Fred the Shred, said they were sorry but they didn’t sound it when they came to tell their story to MPs.

Make no mistake about it, this was a “Burn the Witches” event. The Treasury Select Committee has been working up to it with a few semi-lynchings (private equity bosses) and hangings (hedge fund managers). But this was the real deal — for surely fallen bankers are our modern-day witches — and MPs had spent the night gathering enough straw and twigs for four giant pyres. Now the hour was nigh and all they had to do was provide a light.

The mob waited in the corridor but the Guilty Four were nowhere to be seen, sequestered in a separate match-proof room. When the time came, the mob fell silent as they filed past. The words “burn baby burn” hung in the air, acrid and sulphurous. They did not look like Masters of the Universe as they skulked by for they had taken advice from Knights of the Dark Arts (PR execs) and, for this day only, they had turned themselves into mice.

“So is sorry the hardest word?” demanded John McFall, Labour MP and head witch-hunter, a long lit match in his finger tips.

The mice sat in a row, hunched forward, looking miserable. Their hands were folded before them (more Dark Arts advice). They wore sackcloth and ashes but I couldn’t help but notice that their cufflinks, bought with evil bonus money no doubt, were gleaming.

“There has been much talk of the S-word,” said Lord Stevenson, a smoothie-chops who was chairman of HBOS. “We are profoundly and I think I would say unreservedly sorry at the turn of events.” (The turn of events? I guess that’s one way of putting it.)

Now Sir Tom McKillop, white moustache quivering, formerly of RBS, made an “unreserved” apology. Next to him his former CEO, Fred the Shred (now transformed into Fred the Tread Carefully) squeaked that he too wanted to make a “profound and unqualified” apology. Finally Little Andy Hornby, the whiz-kid witch of HBOS, did a full-on grovel and seemed the sorriest of them all.

The match touched the straw. The witches said that nothing was really their fault. Lord Stevenson told us about his “counter-cyclical” caution. Handy Andy explained how he had reduced the bank’s reliance on property. So, he was asked, did he feel culpable? “Not personally culpable,” he said. Who did he blame? Why the collapse of the wholesale markets, of course.

I couldn’t help but notice that the witches weren’t burning. Indeed, they weren’t even smouldering. Perhaps they had cast a spell by wrapping themselves in the word “sorry”. Never have I seen sorry used in such a sorry way: these men said they were sorry but these were just words, empty as pie shells.

“You are in denial!” cried an MP, bellows in hand, fanning away.

The mice denied they were in denial. Sir Fred and Sir Tom explained that RBS had gone down, not because of them, but because of events in America that led to a crisis of confidence. Sir Fred, head down and voice low, kept talking as if he still worked at RBS. At one point he said: “I believe I’ve run the bank in a responsible way.” I gasped: surely he would start to burn now but he didn’t. Was he made of Teflon?

Then, at the very end, a glimmer of the old Fred. “It’s just too simple if you want to blame it all on me,” he squeaked. It had the ring of a phrase he’s said a thousand times. He’ll never burn. Forget Teflon. These guys are made of steel..

 

21 April: It’s Jacqui Smith, not quite unplugged

The Easter break was fraught for the Home Secretary: the leaked details of her expenses revealed she had charged the taxpayer for, among other things, a barbecue, a toothbrush holder, scatter cushions, a bathplug, and two porn films. Upon returning to Westminster, she had to face the Commons over the arrests of terror suspects.

Jacqui Smith seems to have taken her inspiration for her Commons performance from something very dear to her heart — her bathplug. She has not spent our 88p in vain.

Yesterday the Home Secretary took that object — the cleanest item by far on her now infamous expenses — and used it to plug her mouth.

It was a move of genius. Indeed, I would be surprised if the word “bathplugging” does not become a political verb that is acknowledged as the best possible way to fight leaks of all kinds.

Ms Smith chose her topic well yesterday. By this, I mean that she picked one that she could not talk about by law. Yes, by law, as in contempt-of-court law. Thus she began her “statement” on the terror arrests with the words: “I’m sure the House will understand why I cannot go into detail.”

But I’m not sure it mattered what the House thought, certainly not the Tories who were out in force to watch her squirm. For she kept to her word. No detail got past that bathplug. It was like listening to porridge. She was asked many questions — about Pakistan, about student visas, about border security — and gave us answers of total gloop. They all disappeared without a trace.

Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, is a man made for the word lugubrious but he was no match for this. He noted that our Pakistan student visa assessment operation had been moved to Abu Dhabi. Why had she done this strange thing? She looked at him blankly: the bathplug was in. We never heard of Abu Dhabi again.

He tried to sneer, something at which he is very bad. “And if we believe the Downing Street rumour mill — despite everything, it does appear to be still operating — you will be on your way before long as well,” he said in a voice close to monotone.

Ms Smith’s face did not move. Downing Street rumours are the least of her worries. If it is true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then Ms Smith is made of tungsten by now. It takes guts to live your life knowing that, after your husband’s viewing habits were revealed via her expenses, that everyone you meet can think of only one word and that is “porn”. We used to look at Ms Smith and think cleavage, now it’s porn. I suppose that is progress of sorts.

Her reaction to all of this seems to have become prim. There has always been something of the barmaid about Ms Smith but now, post-porngate, she was as prim as a headmistress facing a class of naughty boys. After Mr Grayling sat down, she scolded him: “The fact that you chose to spend a significant proportion of your response to my statement talking about me rather than the issue says rather more about you than it says about me.”

At this a Tory bellowed: “You ARE the issue!”

Her lips pursed. Silence. This was her answer to all. She came under attack from her own side about G20 and the arrest of the MP Damian Green, who sat, glowering at her throughout. In response, she pursed her lips, parting them only to emit more porridge.

This drove the Tory Douglas Hogg to distraction. “Do you understand my puzzlement about the fact that you have chosen to make a statement that is wholly empty?” he demanded. Her lips, pursed for so long that I feared some sort of cosmetic surgery had been involved, parted in a shadow of a smile. She and her bathplug had won the day.

 

14 May: Mistakes, manure and hairshirts

As the expenses scandal rumbled on, MPs were divided into those who had paid money back and those who hadn’t. It was all starting to smell like, well, manure.

The party is over, the hangover has begun. The Commons was rife with fear, loathing and self-flagellation yesterday.

Labour grandee Tony Wright, always a voice of sanity, said history had seen the Long Parliament, the Rump Parliament and the Addled Parliament. “If we are not careful,” he admonished, “we shall finish up with the Moat Parliament or the Manure Parliament.”

The Manure Parliament. You must admit it has a certain ring, if not smell, to it. No one laughed. When you are waist-deep in the stuff, shovel in hand, maybe it’s not so funny. Besides, MPs, were hurting too much to laugh.

Remorse, like muck, suffused the air. The guiltfest was awesome to behold.

The Speaker, an expert on manure, was in his place. MPs are now divided between those who have written cheques and those who haven’t. I saw Tory Michael Gove (£7,000 for furniture) having a word with Hazel Blears (£13,332 for capital gains) near the doors. “My cheque’s bigger than yours,” Hazel said (or so I imagined). When you are the tiniest MP, these things matter.

Gordon, Dave and Nick all had their hairshirts on. Indeed, as Ann Widdecombe noted, all MPs are in a competition as to whose hairshirt is the hairiest. It was quite something to behold for I, as a feral beast, as all members of the press are considered to be at Westminster, consider myself an expert on all things hairy.

First Gordo showed us his hairshirt which looked a bit mangy. “We must apologise for mistakes,” he said. “We must rectify the errors.” There was a committee looking into it, as well as a commission, an inquiry and at least one independent body. It has to be said that the Manure Parliament loves quangos.

Dave (£680 for wistaria clearing) said Gordon’s hairshirt was as sad as a man with a comb-over. (I paraphrase.) Dave now modelled his shirt, a hoody no less, which looked designer. He wanted MPs to publish their expenses online “in real time”.

He wanted to get rid of the communication allowance worth £10,000 a year for every MP. “Isn’t this a gigantic waste of money?”

Gordo, frantically patching his shirt with strange bits of fur, said that he’d already saved loads of money for the taxpayer. “I have myself refused the pension that is able to be given to any serving Prime Minister. I have myself refused the London allowance. As far as the communication allowance, it is open to the House to look at all these things.”

Dave slapped the dispatch box. “What we want is some leadership to cut some of these costs. You seem to have such a tin ear to these issues. In an age …”

A Labour voice cried out: “You’re a millionaire!”

Dave glowered and tried to look even hairer. Gordon was still shedding bits of fur. The Manure Parliament was looking as bad as it smelt.

Nick Clegg (£80 for phone calls) is leader of the most hirsute party in the Commons and, sure enough, he did not disappoint. He arose to reveal what can only be called a maxi-hairshirt. On his feet were special hairy sandals. He said that all Lib Dems were going to give back any profit made from their second homes. “We are here to serve, not make a fast buck on the property market.”

Gordo, his shirt now looking as patchy as a piebald cat, said that a committee would look into it. Then they all shuffled out, presumably to flagellate themselves with a spiky ball and chain before shuffling up thousands of stone stairs on their knees.

 

All copyright from extracts belongs to Ann Treneman