How to survive in the shark infested waters of Westminster and remain reasonably sane
24 Feb 2018 at 11:26
A few days after the last general election I bumped into an old friend who had just been elected. He looked rather shell shocked. Pleadingly he turned his ashen face to me and wailed, ‘I haven’t a clue how to do this job. What should I do?’. So I sat him down, administered large doses of claret and gave him a few home truths which are as relevant today as they were then. So here they are.
Unless you are a Machiavellian, sociopathic little shit who would betray his colleagues eat their children and sell what was left of his soul for a red box and a share of a medium sized family saloon, there are three priorities. Your family and those you love. Your constituents. Your party.
Your family really does have to come first. It’s difficult. Sometimes very difficult. But at least try. Because in the dark tea time of your soul they are the only people who really care about you and will sustain you through the many crises that will dominate your life. Remember the overwhelming majority of your Parliamentary friends or colleagues don’t really give a shit about you when the going gets really tough. Try and find at least one politician who you can confide in, trust and befriend. This is not easy and will take time. Sometimes you will be surprised that they are from another party.
The whole point of being in Parliament is to look after your constituents. I am afraid the majority don’t give a flying fuck about your views on foreign affairs or even the EU unless they directly affect them. Make your constituency a party political free zone until each election. People hate party politics. And politicians. But they might give you the benefit of the doubt if they know that you are watching their backs. Anyhow, the people who run your association love doing all that political stuff themselves. Rise above it all. Personal attacks are just undignified. And don’t get involved with every fight on the constituency association playground. You can’t win. Don’t try. They do love House of Commons notepaper though. Send them lots of personal notes. But one golden rule. Give you support and loyalty unconditionally to your chairman. He or she has far more power and ability to end your career than the whips. And they will firefight flare up for you that you never knew existed.
You will be shocked at how hopelessly inadequate many your local councillors are. Best not let them know. But to the large part they are good hearted and want to do the best for their wards and the various odd ball ideas that have been buzzing between their ears for years. Just let them get on with it and they will be as happy as pigs in shit. Oh, and they love the notepaper too.Now for the klaxons, bells and red lights. This is important. To many, being a councillor is the pinnacle of everything. When the national opinion polls turn nasty many panic and become independent. Act in sorrow more than anger. They tend to come back when things improve.
Now for your party. Mmm, a tricky one. Remember that you were elected on their coat tails and they can still pull the plug on you. But keeping up with party policy is a nightmare. Pity dear old Alan Mak. I’ve never met him. I’m sure that he is very nice man. But you can smell ambition on him like a cheap aftershave. Imagine his dilemma every morning. He has spent days bobbing up and down in the chamber and destroying Amazonian rain forests with press releases salivating the wonders of a policy. And then suddenly it is reversed and you can smell the burning rubber of a forced U turn. Except that it won’t be forced for young Mak as he will be rejoicing the wonders of this new and wonderful crock of crap.
Years ago the legendary producer Ed Boyle and I collaborated on a game show for politicians called a Kick in the Ballots which aired on ITV. He developed a game called U Turn. A politician was given a subject to speak in favour of, then the Chairman, Charlie Kennedy, would press a buzzer and the politician would argue against. God they were brilliant. Not even a pause for thought.
I really can’t advise on how to handle this. Perhaps do a half Mak. Probably best not to believe a word that comes out of Number 10.
Now for the press. NEVER trust the news desk. They will probably never speak to you again and don’t care about burning their sources. Always say off the record first, then it is. If you say it later this magical incarnation won’t work. Find someone you can trust in the lobby. Believe me they do exist. Their rule is everything you say is off the record unless you wish otherwise. But never ever lie to them. It is not clever. It is lethal because most of the lobby gossip with each other. If you get a reputation for being a shit they will destroy you. And pamper your local press. Don’t issue releases from on high. Chat to them. Take them for a drink. Remember that Fleet Street is for your ego the local press is for your life support.
Oh, and if you receive a phone call from Simon Walters on a Saturday afternoon and you notice Michael Crick strolling down your street, it’s not going to be pleasant. Run for the hills as you are just about to be right royally fucked.
And one final word of wisdom. If a tall pin striped man with the smile like the brass plate on a coffin asks you to sign a letter supporting the Prime Minister. Don’t. For two reasons. Firstly because he is cunt. Secondly, if you sign it you will resemble one too.