Stamina, sleaze and style

After 14 years as The Times parliamentary sketchwriter, Matthew Parris recalls some of the funniest, most eye-opening and most toe-curling moments he witnessed from the press gallery

I began sketching for The Times on December 7 1988. Nobody told me what a political sketch ought to be, and often my thoughts wandered from the business of reporting. . .
Why are all those MPs - those, that is, who are not called Norman - called Reggie, Ronnie or Stan, Cyril, Cecil or Archie? Why are people with ludicrous names driven by some unseen force to stand for election? As with so many great discoveries, the answer came to me by chance while pondering another great question of our time. Why can so few politicians pronounce their r's? In a flash it was all clear. Both questions have the same answer. MPs were desperately unpopular at school

June 28 1990

But behind our jokes, sketchwriters do try to watch for conspicuous quality. Michael Portillo showed it.

When a new minister is taken out for road tests, it is a privilege to be among the observers. Fresh from the showrooms, the air-cooled Portillo Mark II - Poll Tax Turbo GTI - was driven round the circuit for the first time. Results were promising. A discreetly lively performance, road-holding good.

To shine under the Poll Tax badge was never going to be easy. This is a troubled marque with a history of horrendous teething problems. They wheeled him in at 2.30pm. While a trusty Trippier raced up and down the tarmac at Question 1, final checks were made to the Portillo paperwork and exterior trim. The minister was ready.

"Of course I will look at the point." The minister moved up through the gears. "This is an area where the Government wishes local government to be local." Rubber bit into asphalt now, as the minister tried a boost to the turbo: "They can apply multipliers on the standard community charge up to a maximum of two." Chrome flashed in the afternoon sun as he coasted past the grandstand. The Portillo Mark II Poll Tax Turbo GTI was making an auspicious debut.

November 28 1990

Big occasions were always the hardest. What could a sketchwriter say when Margaret Thatcher fell?

There will be people who will portray what passed as an embarrassing lapse. Such people speak of chaos and confusion, of panic and self-destructive anger. Soon they will be referring to these past few weeks as an awkward wobble, when the Tory party temporarily took leave of its senses, then recovered its nerve.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As in some tribal folk-mystery, the Conservative Party suffered a great internal convulsion, triggered as much by the collective unconscious of the tribe as by any conscious plan to contrive its survival. They have not, as individual men and women, known what they were doing, but the tribe has known what it was doing, and has done it with ruthless efficiency. The instinct to survive has triumphed. Not that they were aware of that. All they knew was that they were heading for disaster. Each had his own opinion as to why. What they concurred upon was the imminence of danger. When they concurred on that, the convulsion began.

Michael Heseltine - as much, by now, a totem of dissent as a person - found members of the tribe dancing around him and chanting. He responded. The media took up the chant. Heseltine started a teasing dance: was it a war dance? Nobody knew. He did not know himself. He rose, took the dagger and stabbed her. What happened next is folklore. With the leader wounded, but still alive, her own senior tribesmen drew back with one accord and left her. Suddenly alone, she hesitated a moment, then staggered from the stage.

It could have been done as a ballet. It had all the elements of a classical drama. Like Chinese opera or Greek tragedy, the rules required that certain human types be represented; certain ambitions be portrayed; certain actions punished. Every convention was obeyed: every actor played out his role. The dramatic unities of time, place and action were fulfilled. It started in autumn 1990, and ended in the same season; it started in Committee Room 12 at Westminster, and ended there.

It started with an old leader, who was assassinated as she deserved; then her assassin was assassinated, as he deserved. Then the new leader stepped forward; and here the ballet ended.

And the tribe danced. As I write, they are dancing still.

March 27 1991

I was less cruel to John Major than most. To be honest, I liked him too much and disliked the pack instinct of his detractors. But when he failed to impress, one had to admit it . . .

Wilde defined fox-hunting as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable". At PM's Questions, Major, tackled again on the subject of the poll tax, gave a passable impression of the improbable in flight from the unsaleable. There was another "row" between Major and Neil Kinnock. Lego Man meets Bendy Doll. If either of them had anything to say, it would matter less that neither has the gift of language. If either had the gift of language, it would matter less that neither has anything to say.

Here were two men saying nothing, badly. It was unspeakable, uneatable, improbable and unsaleable.

June 14 1991

John Redwood impressed me. Unfortunately the metaphor I chose to express this caught readers' attention more surely than my praise. . .

Possessed of a supersonic intellect, Redwood, this slim young ex-investment manager with Rothschilds, philosopher of the new right and Fellow of All Souls, is a lean, mean thinking machine. But he is dry, apparently cold, and has an emotionless manner which sometimes spooks his colleagues. This column was the first to tumble to the fact that Redwood is not in fact a human being at all, but a Vulcan, recently landed from the planet of the same name, where merciless logic rules. Redwood now passes as human, engaged in the covert task of assembling a team of Vulcans to take over the Conservative Party.

April 2 1992

Occasionally I got the smell of something amiss, relied on my instincts, and said so. My sketch about the Sheffield rally (which in the event preceded Labour's narrow defeat in the 1992 election) was praised at the time as prescient. But in fact my deadline meant that I could write only about the preparations, and my impression was not that Labour would lose but that, in victory, the party would become prey to an unpleasant triumphalism and an instinct to manipulate. This sketch was less a premonition of Neil Kinnock's defeat than of Labour's final victory. . .

It is at times of retreat that an army's strengths can be observed best and in moments of triumphalism that we first see the seeds of its downfall. It was when Margaret Thatcher employed a train-bearer to carry her gown that we knew that her day was done.

Thus it was in the slick, sick, cynical image-manipulation of Labour's spectacular at Sheffield that we first sensed the contempt into which they, too, must come.

"Any dream will do," sang the children, as Kinnock played king of the kids in a Leeds school. He was preparing for the Sheffield Arena. He took their song to heart. Any dream would do.

Something about the very instructions printed for backstage operators chilled the soul. It was entitled Running order for Mega Rally. "17.30: Doors open: party bus; band, etc, arrive. Street entertainers will be working the audience outside."

I spoke to a press photographer who had been following the Kinnock campaign. Photographers are normally mute and I had no reason to think that this one was a Tory: his frustration was professional.

"The manipulation has been crushingly successful," he said. "This has all been done for television: it goes against a video cameraman's instincts to show the props holding things up and all the minders marshalling the crowds." As an ideal matures into a crusade and a crusade translates into a government there comes a point when, throttled by the very apparatus set up to project it, the ideal begins to choke. This point had come early with Labour. In Sheffield, image throttled intellect and a quiet voice in every reporter present whispered that there was something disgusting about the occasion. Those voices will grow.

Peter Mandelson created this Labour Party and, on that night's showing, Mandelson would destroy it. "We will govern," Kinnock said, opening his speech, "as we have campaigned."

Oh, I do hope not.

April 28 1992

I confess to an affection for Sir Edward Heath. . .

The new Parliament. Was it the changeability of an April day or providence which sent a sudden beam of sunshine through the windows of the Commons to bathe Sir Edward in light as he took the Chair for the selection of a Speaker? His great day had arrived. His smile said it all. "I'm still here. She's gone! Yippee!"

September 26 1992

"Sleaze" gave sketchwriters unending fun, but a twinge of discomfort too. . .

David Mellor made his resignation speech from the back benches. The fun. Mellor: A Personal Statement was scheduled for 11am: a civilised time for a lynching. Just before 11am, Mellor arrived for his ritual humiliation.

Tory numbers had doubled. They had come for the usual show: pale figure of minister, head bowed, old school tie, restrained regrets concerning own folly. Delicate references to nature of folly, heartfelt thanks to colleagues for support during difficult time, sit down. "hear hear" from all sides, shoulder pattings from pals, dignified exit to kindly buzz of "poor David", "there but for the grace of God" etc from outwardly mournful, inwardly sniggering colleagues.

A fortnight of total cock-up ended with just one resignation: a man agreed on all sides to be good at his job.

July 22 1994

When he took his crown as Party Leader in 1994 I formed a view of Tony Blair which has not altered.

As fragments of Shoemaker Levy-9 thudded into the surface of Jupiter, Blair stood up in Bloomsbury and released a barrage of abstract nouns of unprecedented duration and ferocity. It was awesome. Grown men - hardened journalists - rocked against the walls in disbelief. Camera crews, unable to cope with exposure to such sustained levels of intellectualism, staggered from the hall.

Tories ran for cover. Even Liberal Democrats winced. Across the nation, TV viewers, watching the event live, shielded themselves as honour, pride, humility, community, excitement, conviction, trepidation, passion, aspiration, gratitude, courage and determination - and that is only the first page and a half - rocketed out of the television sets and across their living rooms, thudding into a million sofas.

Devices tracking Earth from Jupiter will have blown their fuses at the sheer philosophical energy unleashed. Never, even in Islington, have so many generalities been uttered with such passion by a single politician within one lunchtime.

November 14 1996

Just because nothing has happened at Westminster, sketchwriters need not despair. . .

Betty Boothroyd has beautiful feet. I can reveal this, having spent a fascinating half hour studying her right foot.

It must be hot in those tights. The gown, though becoming, is a nuisance, And the shoes (Boothroyd designed them herself: black patent leather with enormous brooches) appear to pinch.

Add to that the frustration a Speaker must feel as MPs squabble away the afternoon in pointless debate, and those shoes must pinch all the harder. Boothroyd had placed both feet on the little footstool before the Speaker's chair. She was restless, fidgety.

Slowly, the right shoe slipped its heel from under her own and slid forward until it lay beneath her instep, her regal toes slipped loosely in, only their tips sheathed. I held my breath. Would she? She grew bolder. Withdrawing the foot completely, she brushed the shoe from the footstool.

Now exposed, Madam Speaker's foot lay delicately on the green leather, perfectly naked beneath the television lights, hidden from the House but visible to a sketchwriter perched above.

It was a fine foot, about size 4. Some women in their middle years suffer from corns or the deformation caused by ill-fitting shoes. But not Miss Boothroyd. At Ipanema beach I have seen worse feet on women half her age. Each toe was perfect. Your sketchwriter became quite transfixed, his vision focused downward, the rest of the chamber and its graceless company falling into no more than a rude background to this elegant foreground: Madam Speaker's footstool, Madam Speaker's foot.

May 8 1997

The new era was ushered in with a photo-shoot featuring the Blair Babes. My sketch was wonderfully headlined by the sub-editors (to whom I owe all my headlines). "Such Joy! So Much Hairspray"

So many purple suits! So much hairspray! The mood teetered between a fashionable charity premiere of a star-studded new show and the headmaster's First Day address to new boys and girls.

Or should we say new girls and boys? The pastel and primary colours of the hundred-odd women present turned their male counterparts into backdrop.

"You are all ambassadors!" declared Tony Blair. Four hundred eager faces, gathered for this first prime ministerial address to the new Labour MPs, looked up in rapture. All ambassadors? Not in their wildest dreams had they thought Cabinet patronage extended this far.

November 3 1998

About personal tragedies, there is no point making jokes. . .

Like some latter-day Caesar, the Prime Minister was away receiving the tributes of a foreign tribal chief when it fell to his ruined Governor of Wales, Ron Davies, to bring down the curtain on a career at court.

A personal statement from a warrior whose reputation has just been wrecked is perhaps the closest we come in modern times to a public execution. An audience of the ghoulish, the sympathetic and the simply curious can be expected to pack the stadium. As tradition dictates, he was flanked by two fellow officers in Caesar's army. These serve as friends and are allowed to do so without any suspicion falling upon them of implication in the condemned man's offence.

Some condemned men insist on their innocence, railing against accusers. Others try to explain. Some confess and apologise.

Davies offered a weird testimony, part plea in mitigation; part gratitude to family and friends; part lashing-out against the messenger-media; and all wrapped in an appeal for tolerance with no indication (beyond a hint) of what we were to tolerate.

He sat to a few pats from a few around him. There was a general "hear hear", subdued from his own side, a little more sympathetic from the Tories. But then they should know.

A little later, once nobody could accuse him of lacking the guts, Davies slipped out into oblivion.

November 26 1998

From my Press Gallery perch, William Hague seemed to be doing well, but. . .

"Parliamentarian of the Year" is quite an accolade. The Spectator Highland Park trophy (of which the author was a judge)was presented to William Hague at a grand luncheon at the Savoy. The award suggests a politician who has swept all before him. But Hague hadn't. At Questions, the Boy William could usually fight a Goliath of a Prime Minister to a draw, always stinging and quite often winning. No other had been so consistently strong.

Yet the Commons chamber did not seem to matter in 1998. So should we reward someone who has mattered within it? I am sure we were right to stick to our remit: Hague has proved an able parliamentarian, and we said so. But was anyone listening? For the first time I understood why non-political friends raised eyebrows when I protested that the (then) Tory leader was a good Commons performer, and Tony Blair often a ragged parliamentary act. For that is not how it looked on television.

On screen, Blair is animated; Hague looked stiff, wooden. Blair has a flexible tenor: light and shade and varied pace. Hague sounds grinding, gravelly. His humorous eyes seem deadened by the camera.

Westminster boffins must accept that, like a wine that does not travel, the parliamentary talent that was celebrated at the Savoy perishes somewhere in the ether between the camera lens and your rooftop aerial.

January 22 1999

Sketchwriters spotted Stephen Byers's unmemorability, but not his stamina. . .

Britain's former Trade and Industry supremo has an amazing ability. Byers is the talking equivalent of invisible ink.

Within seconds of his speaking you cannot recall a word he has said: he simply wipes himself from your consciousness.

May 9 2001

I spent several months last year on the isolated Southern Ocean island of Kerguelen but was back in good time for the 2001 general election campaign. . .

With a cross behind him, sacred stained glass above him, the faces of 500 schoolgirls in pink and blue gingham before him, and to the strains of a choir singing "I who make the skies of light/ I Will make the darkness bright/Here I am", Blair launched his campaign at the St Saviour's & St Olave's church school in Southwark.

In these dark days, life remains bearable by grace only of the conviction that one day this kind of thing will surely be swept away on a great wave of national revulsion.

On that day, that conviction faltered. It was nauseating. It was breathtakingly, toe-curlingly, hog-whimperingly tasteless. It was unbelievably ill-judged.

Just when one is teased by the thought that Blair might not be all bad, he does something which nobody with a grain of sense or sensibility could even contemplate. "Bunch of lies," said the perceptive child.

Something amiss with the chapel sound amplification caused Blair's voice to sound as though he had just inhaled from a helium tap.

Listening to it made us feel as though we had. But the speech was for television. Few of the children looked riveted by his thoughts on negative equity.

Most did not try. When the Prime Minister told them that he had come to win not just votes but hearts, one girl, drawing her blouse up at her midriff, placed the collar over her head. It was an eloquent response.

The speech was vapid. Seldom have so many clichis of sound, vision and song been dragooned together in so dismal a cause.

Beside me, and before the closing hymn (yes, hymn), Alastair Campbell sneezed. I tried to say "Bless you". The words stuck in my throat.

May 11 2001

The music was heroic. The venue was historic. The atmosphere was electric. And the geometry of the backdrop recalled the angle of the Titanic as she sank beneath the waves.

The Conservative Party was launching its Manifesto 2001 at the Institute of Civil Engineers.

In a hall that witnessed the launch of Neil Kinnock's election-losing 1992 Shadow Budget, and to music specially written for the Tories by the composer of the Wombles theme, members of the Shadow Cabinet marched on to a stage set in which everything seemed to be at unusual angles except the mysterious slogans "Through our lives" and "Knowing who we are", which were vertical and to be read from the bottom up.

As Ann Widdecombe, the Shadow Home Secretary, sashayed in to a swelling chord, we regretted that, for her entry at least, the composer had not reverted to Remember You're a Womble.

She sat down and tried to look statesmanlike. Beside her, Michael Portillo, the Shadow Chancellor, now road-testing the spectacles of a French intellectual, tried to look gritty.

Beside him Francis Maude, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, tried to look sexy. Then, in walked William Hague and tried to sound like the next Prime Minister.

It was bravely and competently done. What Hague said was neither nonsense, nor unintelligent. Nor without point.

He delivered his speech in a relaxed and lucid style, and with confidence. He answered some cruel questions from the press quick-wittedly and with grace. He was pleasant, bright and funny.

We witnessed a performance that was wholly sure-footed. That it was only slightly flat-footed should not normally matter. But my eye kept straying from the very earthbound figure at the lectern, and my ear from the very earthbound speech he was making, to that sickeningly tilted rectangle behind him, ready to dive into the floorboards. This was an emergency. This man was not an emergency measure.

Next year, Ben Macintyre will take up The Times sketchwriting baton and run with it. He will be brilliant. This matters. For the unkind truth is that now Parliament is no longer at the centre of national life, the parliamentary sketch is in danger of becoming an anachronism. Unless it is good, broadsheet papers will start to drop it and, once dropped, it would be hard to revive. I hope I have kept the sketch vigorous these last (almost) 14 years. I feel proud to have tried.