Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My Top 10 Political Gaffes

We've done books, we've done speeches, so here are my Top 10 Political Gaffes, with not a George W. Bushism in sight.

1. John Redwood's attempt to sing Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. Redwood's goldfish impersonation didn't have enormous political repercussions, but I've placed it at No 1 simply on account of its sheer ridiculousness, betraying as it did a complete ignorance of how politics operates in a TV age. Unlike most of the other famous gaffes, it couldn't be explained away as a trip of the tongue or a rush of blood to the head. It was pure, premedidated stupidity. According to his former adviser Hywel Williams, Redwood "regarded the Tory leadership as his by moral and indefeasible right." Well, if he ever was in with a genuine chance of it, this finished it.

It had interesting consequences in which I was a bit-part player. At his first press conference, I asked Redwood's successor as Welsh Secretary, William Hague, whether he would be learning the words of the Welsh National Anthem. He replied: "I think that will be a priority." Shortly afterwards, he recruited a Welsh Office civil servant, Ffion Jenkins, to teach it him. The rest, as they say, is history.

2. Jo Moore's 9/11 email. Within two hours of the hijacked planes smashing into the Twin Towers, Jo Moore sent an email to a colleague at the Department of Local Government, Transport and the Regions saying: "Today is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury." It laid bare not only her own crass insensitivity but the cold stony heart of the New Labour spin machine. It ought to have brought about her immediate resignation and that of the Secretary of State, Stephen Byers, who had the appalling judgement to employ her. In fact both continued in their jobs until a similar furore blew up the following year over an attempt to bury more bad news under the cover of Princess Margaret's funeral, at which point the press decided it was now time to bury Jo Moore.

3. The Sheffield Rally. "We're all right," bellowed Neil Kinnock, sounding a bit like Jim Broadbent attempting to warm-up the audience in Little Voice. They weren't, and the public reaction to this display of triumphalism helped send Labour to a fourth shattering defeat against John Major's Tories. Those who seek to downplay the rally's impact on the result forget how tight a contest it was. Major's majority of 17 actually rested on just 3,600 votes in the most marginal constituencies. So if just 1,800 people in those seats had voted Labour rather than Tory, we would have had a hung Parliament and, in all probability, a Kinnock-Ashdown government.

4. "These cunts must be stopped". This is a personal favourite of mine on account of the fact that I was one of only about ten journalists who actually heard it. It occurred during a Commons debate on the Government's defence white paper, and the immortal words were uttered by the then Armed Forces Minister, John Spellar, who of course meant to say "These cuts must be stopped." Predictably, Hansard cleaned it up and, because of the media taboos still surrounding the c-word, the whole thing went almost wholly unreported. But believe me - it really did happen!

5. The Quiet Man turns up the volume. I stopped attending Tory conferences during the leadership of IDS because they had become frankly irrelevant, but I wish I'd been there in Blackpool to hear this classic. I was actually in my office in the Press Gallery when a colleague phoned through with the advance briefing of the speech they'd had from the Tory spin doctors. When she read out the quote "The quiet man is here to stay - and he's turning up the volume!" I practically fell off my chair. His leadership was probably already doomed, but this piece of idiocy sealed his grisly fate.

6. "Crisis, what crisis?". This was part-gaffe, part example of the trend away from straight political reporting and towards interpretation which eventually was to change the nature of political journalism. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was returning from a summit in Guadeloupe when a reporter asked him about the "mounting chaos" back home as a result of the "Winter of Discontent." Jim gave the reply: "I don't think other people would necessarily share the view that there is mounting chaos," but when the story appeared on the front page of the Sun under the headline "Crisis? What Crisis" it was widely assumed that those words were his. In fact Callaghan was stitched-up by the Tory-supporting Murdoch rag, though you could argue that such a wily and experienced operator should have chosen his words more carefully.

7. Curried Eggs. Doorstepped by a local radio reporter in the midst of the salmonella-in-eggs scare in 1989, health minister Edwina Currie proffered the view that "most of the country's egg production is now infected." A classic political gaffe in that it was simply a too-honest answer to a straight question. But contrary to popular belief it wasn't this that wrecked her career - it was her affair with John Major. Currie's talent made her a candidate for Cabinet promotion, but Major was terrified that such an obvious act of preferment would lead reporters to the smoking gun, and so offered her the dismal post of Prisons Minister. She turned it down in one of her trademark huffs, and eventually sailed off into the Tory sunset.

8. Prescott's Green Pledge. From the habitually mangled syntax, to mispronouncing the name of Slobodan Milosevic, to driving his jag 300 yards from the Labour conference hotel to the conference hall, I could give numerous examples of the Deputy Prime Minister putting his size 10s in it. But my favourite has to be: "The green belt is a Labour achievement and we intend to build on it." It rather unfairly fixed Prescott in the public mind as a blundering idiot, which he decidely isn't. But it did inadvertently and fairly accurately sum-up New Labour's policy of concreting over the British countryside.

9. 7x8=54. Stephen Byers getting his times-tables wrong was primarily interesting in my view for the fact that it was first time he had put a foot wrong in what until then had been a remarkably trouble-free rise up the greasy pole. It seemed to mark a turning point in his career, however, because after this he could scarcely put a foot right. Byers was once spoken about as a future Prime Minister. He is in fact a walking incarnation of the Peter Principle, namely that everyone tends to rise to the level of his own incompetence.

10. Bovine stupidity. John Selwyn Gummer was Agriculture Minister at the time that BSE or "mad cow disease" first entered the public consciousness in the early 90s, so just to "prove" that British beef was safe, he fed his young daughter a hamburger in front of the TV cameras. Far from restoring consumer confidence in beef, it merely exacerbated the collapse in confidence in the Tories, leading to their eventual replacement by New Labour who would of course never stoop to using their children as political props.

And that's about it. In case you're wondering, Dubya was omitted because he'd fill a Top 10 to himself. Also failing to make the cut was Hague's Baseball Cap as I've never understood why a bald man wearing a cap should be considered anything out of the ordinary. Policy gaffes are also excluded as they could cover anything from Brown's 75p pension rise to Hitler's decision to invade Russia. But alternative views are, of course, always welcome!


Anonymous said...

I do enjoy these Mr Linford, keep them coming!

skipper said...

Yes, like your previous comment maker, I find these lists adictive. All of them I enjoy and agree with but would add:
1. Ron Davies's walk on the wild side- he must have known the risks he was taking when he ventured out upon it.
2. Any number of events in the life of Tom Driberg- read his excellent biography by Francis Wheen.
3. Ditto, really, for the life of George Brown: astonishingly able politician but ruined career through his inability to handle even small amounts of alcohol.
4. Wilson's Lavender List on his resignation- he should have known it would blight his reputation.

stalin's gran said...

Good and amusing stuff - but Major's majority at the 1992 election was 21. To start with.

Gareth said...

I like this one - moron

Anonymous said...

Have you a source for PRescott saying "The green belt is a Labour achievement and we intend to build on it"?

I have a feeling it was first heard in a speech at LibDem conference so was a joke written by a researcher.

Unknown said...

gald to see the ommission of the miliband gaffe.

though as a racounteur of digital media, your views on this would be much appreciated