Simon Hoggart On Cameron's Shifting Bald Patch And The Return Of Parliament
Simon Hoggart's worked for The Guardian for more than forty years, and has watched from the House of Commons Press Gallery as prime ministers have come and gone. His latest collection of parliamentary sketches covers the past four years. Huffpost UK caught up with him in Parliament...
Your anthology begins with the demise of Blair and the coronation of Brown. Did sketch-writers hold up their hands with joy when Brown arrived?
Brown was quite good at PMQs actually, although he just "did" Gordon Brown. What you're looking for as a sketch writer is a strong character, something you can really get a handle on, and Brown you could get a handle on. When he said 'we saved the world', you could also see the hearts of all the sketch-writers thumping against our ribcages because we knew we had our sketch for that day. Brown always gave you that, he had that absolute self-confidence in his own rightness.
Is Cameron a fun person to write about?
He's a public relations man, you've got to realise that. He manages to read what the public mood is, but he's always a little bit late so at that point he has to do a screaming U-turn. He's also quite vain, which may be tied in with his awareness of how appearances matter in public life. He's got a bald patch at the back of his head which appears to move from day to day.
We'll he's got a comb-back, hasn't he, rather than a comb over. A really long piece of hair at the front which then gets glued backwards each day....
That's exactly what it is, and of course as the comb-back shifts, so the bald-patch appears to shift. You always know he's agitated and something's going a bit wrong because the bald patch is bigger. That's because he's been shaking his head nervously. Cameron also hates it when the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell draws him with a condom on his head. Cameron has very, very smooth skin and you can be he shaves no more than once a week. So Stephen tried to draw him with cling film over his face, but that was hard to draw. So they used a condom instead. Cameron hates it.
He's still sometimes behaves like he's in opposition, the way he's outraged at things all the time, does he look Prime Ministerial?
Well he looks more prime ministerial than Ed Miliband, certainly our pet cat looks more prime ministerial than Ed Miliband. That's vicious, put partly, true. But Cameron does get quite personal, very quickly, in the way he deals with Miliband. There are no rules to parliamentary invective, but sometimes if you really, really demean your opponent it doesn't appeal to the voters, secondly it stirs up an enmity which is never going to be good in the long run. John Major was always very polite to the other side and even though he came across as a 'wet', people responded to that courtesy.
is that partly why Major's personal brand has remained relatively intact, whereas Blair's is tarnished?
There is a generalised contempt for Tony Blair, which there isn't for John Major. People like to chuckle about his affair with Edwina Curry but they think that fundamentally he was very decent an honourable man.
How do you think the Speaker, John Bercow, is doing. He's tried to make Parliament a bit more relevant...
I actually think the Speaker is doing a pretty good job. I know a lot of my colleagues don't think that, and yes he is quite vain. He always makes sure he's in the chair when anything big happens because he thinks he'll get some publicity. But then he's the Speaker, he ought to be there when the big events are happening. He's making the government be accountable far more than the last Speaker, Michael Martin, who was terrible, and very biased towards Labour. Martin never got the government in to answer urgent questions. Bercow has moved things along, he's stopped long, rambling answers. He's made the chamber a better place.
Which new backbenchers have caught your eye over the past eighteen months?
I don't think that Chuka Umunna is quite as good as he thinks he is, but he's certainly very smart. A lot of the women, particularly the Tory women. Again Louise whatever-her-surname-is-this-week, Mensch, I believe, used to be Bagshawe, she's quite effective on select committees. One thing I've really noticed is how committees have got a lot sharper. More MPs are putting their efforts into them.
Do you think sketch-writing of Parliament will continue? When you decide you've had enough will the Guardian get someone else in to do it?
I think so. There's always something going on. Politics can be very serious and usually occupies two or three pages of a broadsheet, you want something lighter, and the sketch provides it. Also it's the only coverage of the chamber that there is. The Times used to have a team of 16 people covering Parliament every day. Virtually every speech was mentioned, then they realised nobody was reading it. Now the only coverage of the chamber is the sketches.