It's been great, but I'm all sketched out


When I was 38 I lost my job. Two years before I had quit Parliament to present a current affairs flagship, Weekend World. My predecessor, Brian Walden, had been an incomparable interviewer. I was not. Bright enough, knowledgeable enough, presentable enough, I got through each show, but there was nothing special about me as a TV personality. In 1988 the programme was axed, and I, who had no contract left to run, no severance pay, no hope of returning to politics, was high and dry.

I had written (over six years) three one-off articles for this page of The Times: including one about my filmed attempt to live in Newcastle for a week in the winter on a single man's supplementary benefit and one in support of an elderly motorcyclist who had been sent to prison for refusing to wear a crash helmet. I had also been commissioned by The Sunday Times, to write book reviews. That was the extent of my journalism.

So Charles Wilson, then Editor of this newspaper, took quite a risk when he telephoned to ask if I would take over from Craig Brown as Times parliamentary sketchwriter. Craig had had one brilliant, fizzing year in the job, and concluded he never wanted to see the inside of the Commons again.

How could I follow him? So doubtful was I of my chances of success at The Times that when Charles invited me to talk about a contract I said I'd rather not have one as I might not be any good. He looked surprised and immediately agreed to this arrangement. Any lawyer will explain its unwisdom from the journalist's point of view but I felt that Charles was taking a risk in entrusting such a wonderful job to me and should be able to kick me out with no notice and without compensation whenever he liked. Four Editors on, that remains the position.

I said I'd try it for a year, anyway, and made my way nervously to Blackpool, where the Liberal Party was gathering for its annual conference; primarily (it seemed) to debate its own name. I wrote about this on the first day. On the second there didn't seem to be much of interest so I didn't write. Around six a rather desperate man telephoned from The Times at Wapping to ask where my copy was. I said I had not realised something would be required every day, even when nothing had happened. With surprising restraint, he replied that such, indeed, was the arrangement. So from then on I complied.

And the year passed quickly. Charles asked if I would carry on a bit and I replied that really I had not envisaged doing this for very long, but I'd do another year anyway.

That was 1989. When Simon Jenkins became Editor he asked if I would care to carry on and I said "for a bit, yes", but that it had never been my plan to sketchwrite for ever, so maybe another year? That was about ten years ago.

It really isn't hard. Here are some questions people ask about being a parliamentary sketchwriter . . .

Where do you sit?

The Press Gallery is above the Speaker's Chair, like a theatre circle. I'm just above the Leader of the Opposition's head, which may explain the baldist nature of many sketches.

Couldn't you do it from television?

No. You end up telephoning someone who was there to ask what really happened. The camera misses the atmosphere, misses the background - often more important than the foreground.

How long does it take to write your sketch?

As long as you've got. My deadline is about 7pm, though this can be stretched for big events. Most days the Commons starts with Questions, after lunch. But if there follows an interesting debate or statement, you must stay in longer and write faster. I've sketched in 20 minutes with no appreciable difference in quality - one can push words around too long, like peas on a plate.

It's a shame after-dinner debates are rarely sketched because they can be passionate affairs. But a sketch starting "The day before yesterday" doesn't work.

Do you go in with a plan already formed?

Often. And rarely use it. Reality intrudes.

What do you do on a day when nothing happens?

On a hot, tedious Commons afternoon Madam Speaker may slowly slip off a pinching shoe. I got a whole sketch out of that - probably cut out and kept by foot-fetishists nationwide.

Don't the MPs you lampoon hate you for it?

MPs are pretty grown-up about abuse: they dish it, and they can take it. And on the whole they'd rather be written about rudely, poor lambs, than not written about at all. The Lords can be more pompous, and get their chums to complain. Because John Redwood had never complained about his portrayal in the sketch as a Vulcan, I always assumed he was pleased with the attention (The Sun once issued its readers cut-out Vulcan ears to wear) but one day I discovered that he was deeply hurt. So I stopped. The day may come when sketchwriters lay off John Prescott's grammar, too - but not yet I hope.

Don't you ever feel bad, when a sketch has torn some poor MP to pieces?

Yes. And sometimes it's for no better reason than that it was a slack afternoon. You think it's clever when you write it, then when you read it in the paper next day it just looks cruel. Last week I spent a whole column belabouring poor Vernon Coaker (Lab, Gedling) for his ghastly marketing-speak English; next day a friend e-mailed me, partly in jest, asking me to picture Mrs Coaker and the little Coakers at breakfast, with The Times; and I felt a heel.

Why are sketchwriters so personal? Why should it matter how a woman MP dresses, or whether a Prime Minister is dyeing his hair?

Because it does. If sketchwriters were never to make personal remarks there would be a blank space on Page 2 of The Times most days.

Everybody judges partly by appearance. It's deeply unfair, and long may it continue.

Do MPs ever try to bully, threaten or sue?

Only very rarely. Sketchwriters have a little list of them. We know where they live.

Do rival sketchwriters confer?

All the time. If we didn't, we would often write the same sketch. Over tea afterwards we check recollections, help with quotes, pass on tips and try out jokes.

Does it help, that you were an MP?

Yes. It helps me talk knowingly. But I never understood Commons procedure. I ask Peter Riddell.

Do you persecute MPs you dislike?

Yes. And I go easy on people I like. I cannot help having feelings and doubt I should try, though I now think I was cheap about Neil Kinnock, and that my personal regard for John Major robbed readers of some very good jokes.

Isn't the job getting harder, now there are few great Commons characters any more?

Pantomime works because staple characters - even plots - are already familiar. There used to be no shortage in the Commons of Widow Twankeys, Cinderellas, Ugly Sisters, fairy godmothers, evil gnomes, dunderheads, dashing princes and hopeful toads. More recently they've all gone grey; and as Parliament drifts away from kitchen-table cognisance, the parliamentary sketch is in danger of becoming a series of theatre reviews of a play nobody has seen and few ever want to. You could do an entertaining sketch of the European Parliament, or the Ukrainian parliament, if many readers cared about either.

But I'm not pessimistic. Sooner or later Puss (alias Tony Blair) will get too big for his boots and the backbench elves and fairies will grow restive.

But not for a while. The privilege of sketching such follies will fall to my excellent successor, Ben Macintyre. Next year's party conference season would have been my fifteenth; instead it will be Ben's first. For me, the urge to roam more freely has become too strong. In a tent in a gale waiting, as I feared, for death on Kerguelen last year, I decided to quit. Besides, having spent decades spotting those who were not quite as good as they were cracked up to be, I've spotted one rather closer to home. Best, then, to quit while I'm ahead.