Back in 2009, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, there were plenty of hilarious, infuriating and odd examples of politicians wasting taxpayers’ money. Some have become immortal – duck houses, moat repairs, Jacqui Smith’s porn claim and so on.
Sadly, one of my favourites has largely been forgotten – the case of David Tredinnick MP, who charged the taxpayer for the software and tuition required so he could become an astrologer. No, not an astronomer like Brian Cox or the much-lamented Patrick Moore – an astrologer. Think Nostradamus, carnival sideshow con artists and newspaper horoscope columns that say things like “As the new phase of Venus enters the Cancerian optimum, consider buying a scratch card – or a second hand Vauxhall.”
I wrote about it for the TPA at the time, suggesting the public might like to email Mystic Tredinnick and request he read their future, given that they had paid for his so-called education. He didn’t take it very well, and as far as I’m aware he never did agree to give out any lottery numbers in advance – though he did later agree to pay back the money he had claimed.
This wasn’t a one-off. As well as his taxpayer-funded foray into the territory of Gypsy Rose Lee, the Member for Bosworth has also pressed the NHS to fund homeopathy, claimed that “remote healing” via telekinesis works despite the total absence of evidence and argued that surgeons and police officers should plan their work according to the cycle of the moon.
Now it has come to my attention, via The Geek Manifesto, that not only is the Parliamentary equivalent of Paul Daniels still going, but he has been elected onto the Science and Technology Select Committee. This is an MP who not only believes in just about every debunked alternative therapy going, but who openly and repeatedly places anecdotal evidence above statistical studies. The ability and the willingness to assess and weigh evidence is the foundation of science – and yet science policy will now be studied by someone who rejects the very concept of what is and is not evidence.
One of the Select Committee’s upcoming Inquiries is into the way clinical drug trials are carried out in the UK. Will the people really be best served by someone who rejects the evidential proof that homeopathy does not work?
It doesn’t take David Tredinnick’s crystal ball to see that this is a car crash waiting to happen.
Sometimes in the busy life of a Minister of the Crown it’s not possible to keep everyone happy.
So it was for Paul Burstow, Minister for Care, who was due to speak at the National Pensioners Convention in Blackpool this week – until a Parliamentary debate, apparently called at short notice, meant he had to cancel his appearance.
I’m sure Mr Burstow knew the National Pensioners Convention wouldn’t be best pleased, but I’m not sure he thought they would respond to his absence by doing this:
(hat-tip to the Blackpool Gazette)
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 CrashBangWallace.com’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?
Police are still investigating an alleged assault in the Strangers’ Bar last night.
Reports of violence in the House of Commons are mercifully rare, but this sheltered life does lead some MPs to be woefully ignorant of how common and terrifying such occurrences are for their constituents.
I was pleased to see from Hansard that at least one MP has done fact-finding patrols with the police to find out how such problems arise outside Westminster:
“I go about my constituency occasionally with the cops on a Friday or Saturday night. We see a bit of violence in the streets and recognise where it comes from, what is happening and who the bad guys are—who has been caught up in things because they have drunk too much and so on.” – Eric Joyce MP, 31 March 2009
Kent County Council’s Youth Service Transformation Consultation was never going to be the most exciting public process in the world – that is, until the war against the undead cropped up.
Among the obligatory quangos, District councils, MPs, PCSOs, parents and young people listed as responding to the consultation was one “First Sergeant”, whose occupation is listed quite prominently as “Vampire Killer”.
Sadly, the submission made by the modern-day Van Helsing of Kent has not been published. With council tax at the rate it is, perhaps he now views Kent County Council as a bloodsucking institution in its own right…
SexyMP.co.uk has caught on big time in Westminster – not just with researchers and hacks but with more than a few MPs keeping a close eye on their ranking.
So I’m sad to hear that PICT (Parliamentary Information, Communication and Technology) have apparently blocked the site on the Palace of Westminster’s computers.
Perhaps it’s to stop those tribunes of the people who keep repeatedly voting for themselves?
There’s always a healthy debate about whether our political system leads to the brightest and best going into Parliament. It’s a never-ending argument, but the latest piece of evidence isn’t very encouraging. At the Portcullis House cafe they’ve had to go to extraordinary lengths of blu-tac artistry to explain to Parliamentarians the difference between “Bin” and “Not Bin”…
Further evidence that faced with two options, some politicians need a Whip on hand to tell them which to choose no matter the question.
Every time an example of absurd and excessive regulation comes forward from the “something must be done” lobby, it increases my own support for one particular regulatory device: a Buffoons Register.
The idea is self-explanatory – it would be a central database where buffoons who advocate ridiculous government meddling would be made to sign their names.
Happily, it seems that David Crausby MP agrees with me and has actually created just such a register, in the form of this Early Day Motion:
“That this House condemns the shooting of the stag known as the Exmoor Emperor; believes that this beautiful animal, standing nearly nine feet tall should have been spared to live out his life as a magnificent example of the Giant Red Stag, the biggest wild land animal in the UK; and calls on the Government to protect special individual animals from this kind of senseless destruction.”
Yes, really – Crausby and four other backbenchers have put their names to this – going beyond the usual EDM bandwagon-jumping whenever an emotive story is in the news to actually call for Government legislation to protect “special individual animals”.
The drafting process should, of course, begin straight away. There’s no time to lose and there are so many difficult legislative questions to negotiate.
How do they intend to construct their Talented Animals List? What will be the definition of a “special” animal? Does a talking parrot count, or would it have to be multilingual to merit a police bodyguard? Would a particularly industrious ants’ nest qualify, or are collective and communal hive beasts not eligible? Perhaps, seeing as the proposal is inspired by a deer that happened by accident of nature to grow to be massive, talent doesn’t come into it and only freakishly large animals will be moved into safe houses lest someone come gunning for them?
I can see this occupying the House for some time to come – it’s not like the nation has any bigger issues to deal with.
Crausby and his cross-party allies have done us all a great favour – not by raising this ridiculous idea, but by outing themselves in one, easy to access database. Long live the Buffoons Register.