Horses, cats, badgers and burgers: The Top 10 Weird Political Scandal Props

Posted on March 02, 2012

There is a particular type of news story which British politics alone produces. Maybe it’s to do with our politicians, our media or our national sense of humour, but it’s undeniable that Westminster has an amazing capacity to produce scandals which give a prominent part to odd (and otherwise insignificant) items.

The case of Rebekah Brooks’ horse, which it has emerged was ridden by David Cameron once despite No 10’s previous denials, is a classic example. The story is interesting due to its part in the ongoing discussion of relationships between politicians, the media and the police, but in itself it’s not that interesting. On paper, it doesn’t deserve front page billing – and yet it is almost certain to be on the front page of several of tomorrow’s papers.

What propels into media stardom is the very fact that the whole thing centres around a horse – and it is this kind of peculiar political prop that British journalists and audiences absolutely revel in.

In order to further the study of this phenomenon, here are’s Top 10 Weird Political Scandal Props:

1) Ron Davies’ “badger”

The former Secretary of State for Wales was forced to quit politics after being photographed by The Sun apaprently cruising for sex in the woods. So far, so run-of-the-mill sex scandal. It was, however, his claim that he had been “watching badgers” that made the story famous, notorious and memorable. The badger is distinguished particularly by being a Political Scandal Prop which did not actually exist. (As an aside, almost as memorable a prop provided by Davies was the word “sorry” which he wrote on his hand before TV interviews to remind himself to say it…)

2) Michael Foot’s Donkey Jacket

Michael Foot was a disastrous Labour leader for many reasons (not least the “longest suicide note in history”), but he is still remembered for wearing what appeared to be a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day in 1981. As it turned out, it wasn’t a donkey jacket after all, and the Queen Mother reportedly liked it, but the impression that he was treating the ceremony with disrespect stuck both on his reputation and in the memories of the public.

3) The Duck House

In modern times, the £1,645 Duck House claimed on MPs’ expenses by Sir Peter Viggers is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Weird Political Scandal Props genre. The fact that no-one knew what a duck house was before Sir Peter gave the UK’s duck house industry a publicity boost helped the story to come to be emblematic of the entire MPs’ expenses scandal. Ask someone in the street what they remember about MPs’ expenses and they are certain to mention the accommodation facilities provided to Viggers’ mallards.

4) John Gummer’s burger

In 1990, at the height of the BSE/CJD panic, Agriculture Minister John Gummer attempted to calm the public by feeding a beef burger to his daughter. As if the deployment of a young child, or the attempt to feed her allegedly dangerous meat, wasn’t bad enough, young Miss Gummer refused to eat it, so her father tucked in for the cameras instead.

5) David Mellor’s Chelsea Kit

In the firestorm of scandals engulfing John Major’s Government, David Mellor’s affair with Antonia de Sancha still stands out – purely due to her claims that he asked her to wear a Chelsea shirt while they had sex. In the 90s, sleaze was all too common, but sleaze with such an odd prop proved legendary.

6) William Hague’s baseball cap

The newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, in opposition for the first time in 18 years and battered from the grim decline of the Major years, went on an immediate drive to appear young and in touch. For some reason, this involved wearing a baseball cap on a log flume at a theme park – a move which was roundly mocked from the left and the right. (A close runner up for William Hague was the 14 pints that he claimed to regularly drink in a day when younger.)

7) Humphrey the Downing Street Cat

Shortly after the Blairs moved into Downing Street in 1997, Humphrey the cat, who had been in residence since 1989, was unceremoniously forced to move out. Medical reasons were cited for his retirement (“spending more time with his family” presumably being inapplicable), but rumours abounded that Cherie Blair had taken a dislike  to him – or even had him murdered, according to Alan Clark.

8 ) The egg that hit John Prescott

In 2001, countryside protester and mullet-wearer Craig Evans threw an egg at John Prescott. The one thing he probably didn’t expect was for Prezza to wallop him in return. There were calls for a resignation, general sympathy for wanting to punch someone who pelts you with food and the famous Blair response “John is John” – all started by a simple egg.

9) Michael Mates’ engraved watch

One of the odder parts of the Polly Peck scandal in the early 90s (which is only now coming to court, with Asil Nadir’s return to Britain) was when Michael Mates, then Northern Ireland Minister, sent Nadir a watch engraved with the words “Don’t let the buggers get you down”. Somewhat embarassingly for Mates, who had been defending Nadir in public as well as sending such tokens in private, the businessman skipped bail and fled to Cyprus. Mates resigned.

10) John Hemming’s girlfriend’s cat

Before the scandal over Rebekah Brooks’ horse, Lib Dem MP John Hemming had provided the most recent animal-themed controversy. Hemming, a repeat adulterer who has been a little too open about his sex life for some reason, apparently annoyed even his hyper-tolerant wife so much so that she stole his mistress’s pet cat. The cat was reported to have been found, but there have since been allegations that the cat that was handed over is not the real cat after all. The mystery deepens…

There are plenty more Weird Political Scandal Props out there – which are your favourites?

The curse of the Miliband Mix-up, episode 329

Posted on February 13, 2012

This blog has long followed the Great Mili Mix-up, the tendency of even the most accomplished commentators to mix up David and Ed Miliband, almost as if the universe itself is trying to set right the error made when the wrong brother was elected Labour leader. So far it’s struck the BBC website, the Today Programme, the Telegraph, the Mirror and even Google Image Search.

The latest in this longstanding tradition is City AM, who illustrate the findings of today’s Voice of the City poll with the wrong Miliband:

The poll finding illustrated with David’s photo reads “69% Disapprove of Ed Miliband’s performance during the NHS reform debate”.

It’s hardly City AM’s fault that the Opposition Leader is apparently one of Britain’s most forgettable men – or were the picture desk just trying to imply a solution to the problem?


Jowell’s office goes off message on the NHS

Posted on February 08, 2012

Labour are running a concerted “Drop the Bill” campaign against the Health and Social Care Bill. In today’s PMQs, David Cameron cast it as an attempt to save Ed Miliband’s leadership rather than save the NHS, which it may be, but nonetheless it’s a big issue for Labour on the attack and a potential weak point in the Government’s armour.

The left have long been good at raising a Twitter mob for online attack campaigns, but in Tessa Jowell’s office it’s gone a bit wrong today.

Tessa’s political adviser Jessica Asato tweeted this morning, calling on people to “back the Bill” to “save the NHS“. Slightly off message for a Labour campaign trying to , err, sink the Bill which they claim will destroy the NHS.

She’s since ‘fessed up to the error – but it’s not exactly a shining highpoint for Ed’s flagship campaign…

Ed Miliband struck by the curse of the anti-mojo

Posted on January 10, 2012

The success or failure of political campaigns rests on a lot of different factors. Many of them are solid things – do you raise enough money? Do your team work harder than the other side? Are your ideas coherent?

But there is another factor which is just as important, or potentially even more important. There’s not really a specific word in English for it, so let’s call it mojo.

When you’ve got mojo, you’re unstoppable. Everything you say comes out well, everything you do is well received, and you just seem naturally destined to win. Everything you touch turns to gold. Barack Obama had mojo in the 2008 Presidential election campaign.

Of course there are material things supporting this – the hard work is still being put in, the good team still need to be there and you still need to fundraise – but there’s an element of magic about it as well. Some politicians are touched with it for their whole careers – Tony Blair, for example – some people will get it at a crucial time only for it to vanish later, while others may see it crop up intermittently through their whole lives.

It’s when you have the opposite of mojo that things get really interesting.

I’m not talking about a simple absence of it – the vast majority of politicians are, for the vast majority of their careers, lacking it and instead forced to rely on hard bloody work alone.

I’m talking about when you are in active possession of anti-mojo. When you’ve got the Black Spot. When you’re cursed.

You won’t find politicians who have had anti-mojo for their whole lives. If they did, their careers would never have got off the ground in the first place. Instead, it strikes one day, and can prove impossible to shake off.

These unlucky souls are in real trouble. They can have the money, the team, the elbow grease, even the ideas, but everything they touch goes horribly wrong. Bungles are made. Fate intervenes to destroy the best-laid plans (remember Gordon Brown’s literally car crash poster unveiling?).

If it was a patch of bad luck alone, it might be possible to keep your head down and wait for it to pass. In ordinary life, I suspect this happens to most people at one time or another and they survive. As a political leader that’s almost never possible.

Instead, the problem becomes self-reinforcing. Your misfortune, incompetence and absurdity become a media and social theme. After the first obvious incidents occur, people start looking out for them. You swiftly become the laughing stock of the lobby, and then of the public. When this happens, the prognosis is almost always terminal. Needless to say, this is the political comms person’s nightmare – how do you manage the reputation of someone the Universe appears to have taken a dislike to?

Ed Miliband may well have reached this point in the last week. Never the most naturally comfortable or suave politician, his slow handling of the Diane Abbott furore swiftly developed into an out and out collapse in respect through his “Blackbusters” tweet.

Today, you can see the results. When for whatever reason he kept lobby journalists waiting for over half an hour for his much-trailed (and much rewritten) 6th relaunch speech, they went public and started taking the mick out of him on Twitter. (See here, here, here, here, here and here for examples). Then the BBC accidentally captioned him as “David Miliband”.

It’s not just that he’s a leader in the Twitter age – it’s that his anti-mojo has got so bad that the lobby don’t respect or fear him. When it feels natural to the nation’s political press that they can mock you in public, you’ve got a serious problem. When you lose respect to a degree that even the ordinary politeness any Briton would show to a stranger isn’t accorded to you, then that is incredibly hard to overcome.

It’s safe to say Ed Miliband was not born to be a man touched for all his days by the magic of political mojo, but there was a chance he could have been one of those politicians known for achieving through hard work what had not been gifted to him by sheer pazazz. Instead, he’s become infected by a truly severe case of anti-mojo. 2012 is barely two weeks old, but his leadership is already in serious, serious trouble.

The Ed/David Media Mili-Mix-Up Part III

Posted on July 18, 2011

Despite the big impact he’s generally recognised to have made on the hacking issue over the last fortnight, it seems Ed Miliband is still having some serious recognition issues even among the political media. After the Today Programme and the internet itself mixed him up with his brother David, and the Telegraph did the same, the effect is spreading.

Guido picked up on the Daily Mirror’s Mili-mixup:

Now the BBC website has managed to follow suit in their live coverage of  PMQs:

This is quite funny, but it leaves Labour with a serious question: if even now, at the height of his performance, journalists mix up Ed Miliband with David Miliband what hope is there that the public know who he is?

Ed Miliband trapped in a Final Destination film

Posted on July 01, 2011

In the Final Destination films, whenever someone cheats death the universe immediately starts trying to correct their lucky escape by killing them off. It know seems increasingly likely that this is happening to Ed Miliband – fate clearly never meant him to become Labour leader, he beat David by accident and now the universe is trying to set its mistake right.

A few weeks ago the Today Programme mixed the two up, and I noted that no less an authority than the internet has no idea who Ed is. Yesterday, the Independent revealed that millions of voters shown a photo of Ed would identify it as David Miliband.

Now even the Telegraph has started doing it, reporting in its coverage of the Inverclyde by-election that:

The Labour leader, David Miliband echoed Mr McKenzie’s sentiments and went further saying that the Labour win showed how disillusioned the public were about the coalition government’s handling of the economy.

How long can it be before the forces of fate and nature set right this mistake and put David Miliband in charge? When will Ed reach his Final Destination?

Profiling Ed Balls’ personality through his pig doodle

Posted on June 12, 2011

There’s a simple personality profiling test called the Pig Test. You draw a doodle of a pig, and the way you do so is used to give a sketch outline of your personality type. (If you want to take the test yourself, please draw a pig now, because the details in the rest of this post will otherwise influence your results). It’s not perfect, but it’s an amusing little way to give a broadbrush insight into what you or your friends are like.

How convenient, then, that the Ed Balls Files released by the Telegraph this week feature a doodle of a pig drawn by Ed Balls himself:

So according to the rules of the Pig Test, what does it tell us about Ed Balls’ personality?

First, the doodle is located at the top of the page, which apparently should mean “you are perceived as a positive
and optimistic person by others.” (I did say it wasn’t perfect).

Next, we look at the direction the pig is facing – Ed’s piggywig is looking out of the page directly at us, indicating “you are a direct person; [you] neither fear nor avoid discussion and enjoy “stirring the pot” to promote change.”

The doodle also has more detail than you would normally expect in a picture of a cartoon pig, which means “you see yourself as analytical and cautious. Others must work hard to earn your trust and to keep it.”

The fact the pig has two rather than four legs indicates a sense of insecurity, that “you are living through a period of major change in your life”.

The pig’s ears aren’t unusually large or unusually small, so far as I can see that means Ed is a fairly good listener.

Finally, and most tellingly, there’s the tail. According to the rules of the Pig Test, “the longer the pig’s tail that you have drawn (including loops) the more satisfied you are with the quality of your personal relationships”.

It speaks for itself that Ed Balls’ pig has no tail at all.

Ed who?

Posted on May 04, 2011

John Humphrys must be a bit embarrassed by his Mili-mix-up on the Today programme this morning, ending his interview with the Labour leader by calling him “David Miliband”. But Humph shouldn’t be too worried – he was only channeling the general opinion that David is better than Ed Miliband.

For some galling proof, if you Google “miliband”, you get David first:

Even more galling for Ed must be the results if you do the same thing on Google Images:

Ed Miliband? Who?

Ed Balls – from Green Tax Crusader to Jeremy Clarkson

Posted on March 14, 2011

Ed Balls has evidently decided that hammering the Coalition on rising fuel duty and the double-tax on fuel through VAT is the right way to go. Politically, it’s a clever choice – the levels of tax faced by motorists are punitively high, it does harm the economy and it means ordinary taxpayers are often punished for making essential trips to work or to the shops – particularly in rural areas.

Essentially, he is shifting – at least partially – into TaxPayers’ Alliance messaging, casting himself as being on the side of the strivers, the strugglers and the just-getting-by. Heck, he even confessed this morning that maybe the previous Government might have wasted some money, an acknowledgement that seems obvious to the rest of us but is a groundshaking revelation when it comes from Balls.

As well as being political good sense, this is also part of a growing decontamination strategy that Labour are pursuing to shed the negative associations of the stealth taxes and squandered billions of 1997-2010.

The question with any decontamination strategy is “Will it work?”

With Ed Balls, you’ve got to wonder if even his powers of self-delusion will succeed this time. Today, he is an opponent for economic and moral reasons of hammering motorists. In his pomp helping to present and defend the Budget back in 2007, though, he was boasting about the ethical worthiness of, erm, hammering motorists:

That is exactly what we have been doing over the past 10 years with action to shift the tax burden from “goods” to “bads”, and with the work that we have done to support and, indeed, to pioneer international emissions control and trading. In the Budget, we have set out further actions to advance the environment agenda, including…a fuel duty increase of more than inflation

Is it really believable that the Ed Balls who spent a decade squeezing and squeezing motorists until the pips squeaked because driving was “bad” has now seen sense and is fighting on the motorists’ side? It’s about as plausible as Jeremy Clarkson being elected as the next leader of the Green Party.