The ‘plebgate’ saga is finally heading towards a conclusion, with charges against those involved due imminently. Rarely has there been so much news coverage of a word that was never said. Andrew Mitchell, Conservative Chief Whip, did not say pleb. But the police said he plebbed, and we all trusted them. Naughty police.
Nonetheless, this is a story about something that never happened. It raises the old philosophical question – if a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If five police officers say a Tory called them plebs and no one was around to hear it…
It would all be so much more scandalous if he had said it. Politicians are usually so good at blurting out something they instantly regret, the moment it has passed their lips without being run by the brain department first.
Luckily, our politicians have made valiant efforts before now to forget all their media training and come out with some wildly misjudged statements. Here are five of the best from recent years.
1) Prime Minister Gordon Brown describes Gillian Duffy as a ″bigoted woman″.
This was considered by many to be the final nail in Gordon Brown’s coffin. A coffin which, to be fair, already had quite a few nails in it. But during the run-in to the 2010 General Election, when Gordon Brown got into a car to be driven away from a meet and greet with his adoring public in Rochdale, he made the fatal error of not turning his microphone off.
That microphone then recorded what he really thought of one Gillian Duffy, 65, who had been giving her thoughts to him on the Labour party and, crucially, immigration moments earlier. As he settled into his seat and gave his thoughts on the ″bigoted woman″ to his aide, he was blissfully unaware that the Sky News microphone was still on. Not for long though, and within the day he was calling Mrs Duffy to apologise.
The Prime Ministerial suit never really fit Gordon Brown from day one, and The Sun squeezed every last drop out of what became known as ‘Bigotgate’.
2) David Cameron tells MP Angela Eagle to ″calm down, dear″.
High noon on a Wednesday inevitably brings with it Prime Minister’s Questions, an odd ritual in which the PM gives mostly scripted answers to questions his people have already seen and sometimes written. All this is done while MPs shout and bray like mad donkeys if they don’t like what they hear, in an extension of the public school dinner hall.
So it’s not unusual for the PM to receive less than total reverence and silence when he’s answering the questions of the day. What is unusual is for the PM to break out his best Michael Winner impression in parliament. Which is what Cameron decided to do to try and calm down/condescend to MP Angela Eagle, by telling her to ″calm down, dear″.
Cameron’s critics saw it as a lack of respect for women in parliament, echoed by a distinct lack of senior females in the Conservatives. He apologised and insisted to the Sunday Times that he did not want to be seen as ″one of the lads″. No danger of that, Dave.
3) Harriet Harman calls Danny Alexander ″a ginger rodent”.
At the Scottish Labour conference in 2010, Harriet Harman rather uncharitably likened Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander to another unwelcome creature in Scotland, the ginger rodent. It rather backfired on Harman though, as her comments were seen as anti-ginger and anti-Scottish. (Note to Harriet Harman: if you are going to make negative ginger comments, don’t do it in Scotland).
She swiftly apologised to Danny Alexander and to all ginger people for any offence caused. But it’s not all bad, as The Cairngorm brewery in Danny Alexander’s Inverness constituency has since launched an ale called Ginger Rodent, in his honour.
Besides, everyone knows Danny Alexander is Beaker from the muppets.
4) Simon Burns calls the Speaker John Bercow a ″stupid, sanctimonious dwarf″.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow is not the tallest man, granted, but maybe he looks shorter because his wife, Sally Bercow, is much taller. The parliamentary equivalent of Tom Cruise standing next to Nicole Kidman.
Either way, Conservative MP Simon Burns was forced to issue an apology in 2010 after his fellow MPs in the House of Commons overheard what he probably meant to keep under his breath. Which was, after being told by the Speaker to face the microphone when speaking, that the Speaker was a ″stupid, sanctimonious dwarf″.
Although the apology he issued was not directly to John Bercow, but to the Walking With Giants foundation for his negative comments about dwarfism. Oddly, he recently decided to run for the position of Deputy Speaker which would have made Bercow his boss. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the job.
5) ″Chicken feed″ is what Boris Johnson thinks of £250,000.
BoJo out of touch with his fellow man? Utter rot and absolute poppycock. But he did rather put the old size-tens in it when he referred to his £250,000 salary for a weekly Telegraph column as ″chicken feed″ in a 2009 BBC interview on Hard Talk.
Interviewer Stephen Sackur could barely believe that even Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson would refer to a quarter of a million pounds, in recession hit Britain, as ″chicken feed.″ But indeed he did, before umming and erring and waffling a bit in true Boris-style. Then he tried to turn the conversation to Stephen Sackur’s BBC wage, but that didn’t work either.
All of which inspired this election stunt of a giant chicken chasing a Boris look-alike to work, which in turn have may well have inspired The Thick Of It writers to have a pork chop follow beleaguered Nicola Murray.