LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 11: Matt Hancock attends day 1 of the Capital Jingle Bell Ball at The O2 Arena on December 11, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

Close the MP-to-media pipeline

You probably aren’t going to be good at television

Artillery Row

If you’re a Conservative MP there is a good chance you began 2020 feeling pretty damn positive about your long-term professional prospects. The “red wall” had crumbled. The Conservatives had won an 80 seat majority. Yes, it was time to take out a mortgage — or a second one — and look forward to at least fifteen years of twiddling your thumbs in Parliament.

Now, Conservative MPs are staring down the barrel of unemployment

So much for that. Now, Conservative MPs are staring down the barrel of unemployment. It’s time to update their CVs and add “Totaljobs” to their bookmarks again. I’m somewhat sympathetic. For all that the Conservatives have done a dreadful job, a lot of MPs are decent people in a tough position — working within a constrictive system and selected for their inability to do much more than exist. Besides — it would be absurd for me to laugh at people for being professionally insecure. I work in journalism.

Still, it concerns me how many politicians seem to think the media provides an easy, profitable route into a new career. Politicians can be talented media personalities (one hopes they have all kinds of transferable skills). Say what you like about Boris Johnson as a politician and a man but his “gimmick”, if you want to call it that, has been very popular in television and in print.

Yet now the floodgates have opened and Conservatives who lack BoJo’s shambling charisma and sub-Wodehousian wit are streaming into television and podcast studios. Matt Hancock, who should have headed for a monastery, headed for the jungle to appear in I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here. He enjoyed success, of a kind, because he was willing to eat camel penis and be drenched in slime. But that didn’t make him talented. In professional wrestling, the success of Mick Foley, who had been willing to take horrendous punishment, like being thrown off cages and powerbombed onto cement, encouraged all kinds of imitators who inflicted horrific pain on themselves. But Foley was not just a human car wreck — he was a charming and intelligent performer, in the ring and on the microphone. Hancock has nothing but a stubborn willingness to degrade himself.

Nadine Dorries got a show on TalkTV, where she interviewed Boris Johnson — which was something like Waylon Smithers interviewing Monty Burns. “I know how innocent you are, but would you say you are extremely innocent or fantastically innocent?” This was not one of the questions but it might as well have been. God bless independent journalism.

GB News has hired so many current and former Conservative MPs that work there might soon be considered a perk of the job. Esther McVey went into politics from the media, so we’ll give her a pass, and Michael Portillo has been broadcasting for about as long as he was in politics, but now Lee Anderson has a gig, and Philip Davies has a gig, and Jacob Rees Mogg has a gig. Rees Mogg works hard and has a welcome level of seriousness but he’s still an odd replacement for the ball of nervous energy that was Mark Steyn. His manner is not that of someone who is going to make me excited about right-wing politics. It is the manner of someone who is going to tell me that Wally Hammond has reached a century at Lords. Plus, again — God bless independent journalism.

You might think Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell’s podcast The Rest Is Politics is an impressive exception. No. It is as tedious as it is smug. Granted, this is largely Campbell’s doing. Stewart is a genuinely talented man, all political disagreements aside, whose The Places in Between — written before he entered politics — is a fine work of travel journalism. Campbell, though, is a middle-class hooligan whose political pathologies get confused for principles. I know he was not a politician per se, but I worry that The Rest Is Politics is going to spawn all kinds of podcasts from opportunistic MPs so it was worth a mention.

Conservatives are not alone in seeking comfortable media gigs. Labour’s David Lammy has a well-paid slot at LBC. I’ve tried listening to him but after five minutes I found my upper body sinking onto my desk like a battleship gradually descending beneath the waves. I woke up, feeling as if I had slept for a thousand years, and I’m not entirely sure he had finished his sentence. 

You can understand why MPs think they would be good in media — and why commissioners think they would be good as well. They often have name value. They have political knowledge (well, some of them do). They have speaking experience. 

Yet speaking in Parliament and speaking on TV, or radio, or podcasts are different things. Broad and shallow knowledge of day-to-day politics is not the same as having your finger on the pulse of a nation’s political culture. Generally, the name value of politicians is a side-effect of their professional status and not something earned by distinctive personal qualities. Besides, politicians are constrained by the fact that they want to get back into politics — not all of them, perhaps, but most of them.

I understand you’re going to be looking for a job, Conservative MPs. But have you considered residential care? Graphic design? Opening a cafe? 

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