There’s not much that signifies the downward trend of society these days than the eloquence of politicians. Of course in Parliament there are all manner of procedures and protocols that go back centuries such as not being able to call someone a liar. These combined with the education system meant that politicians could literally speak for Britain in both good and bad ways. I’ve posted previously on 20 of the greatest speeches of all time
Nothing is quite as it once was though there is still some truth in the fact that English people in particular have the every day capacity to be terribly rude and horrible about someone without their target even realising it.
Boris can do it but then he is slightly mad, generally though I can think of only a handful of politicians who have any style of oratory whatsoever and I often find myself watching or listening to a politician and wondering how on earth they ended up being elected despite having less than stellar speaking skills, let alone the ability to structure a speech or argument.
It wasn’t that long ago when even if politicians were still useless, they could superficially come over as something less than a stumbling 14 year old who is held back a year in English and many them could be downright entertaining.
“The Right Honourable Gentleman’s smile was like the silver plate on a coffin.”
Benjamin Disraeli’s putdown of Sir Robert Peel Conservative Prime Minister from December 1834 to April 1835, and again from August 1841 to June 1846. There must have been something about Peel’s smile, because Irish politician Daniel O’Connell reputedly compared it to the reflection of a sunbeam on a coffin plate. Sir Robert Peel of course is today best remembered for creating the first modern and professional police force in the world and hence why we have the humble ‘Bobby’ as a phrase for British police or indeed for the nerdy amongst us, the Peelers.
“If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.”
It is hard to think of a political rivalry more heated than Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Disraeli had quite a way with words when it came to insulting his great rival He also said of Gladstone that he had “not one redeeming defect”. Disraeli had his own detractors, though. John Bright called him “a self-made man who worships his creator“.
A few generations later and politics was dominated by David Lloyd George who is my favourite politician. He isn’t as well known for his cutting remarks though he was an orator like none other however my favourite Lloyd George insult wasn’t said by him but of him.
“He can’t see a belt without hitting below it.”
Margot Asquith, wife of the Prime Minister HH (Herbert Henry) Asquith, showed she could pack a verbal punch with this memorable jibe about her husband’s successor David Lloyd George (1863-1945). Lloyd George, who led Britain for much of the First World War, could be sharp-tongued himself, saying once of rival politician Sir John Simon: “The right honorable and learned gentleman has twice crossed the floor of the house, each time leaving behind a trail of slime.”
“He would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises.” was another good David Lloyd George insult and this one aimed at the master of political wit, Sir Windson Churchill.
Churchill was of course extremely well read and later became an incredible writer and historian but it was his caustic wit and nimble thinking that made him such a darling for those who like political insults. When berated for being drunk by MP Bessie Braddock, Churchill said: “My dear, you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober, and you will still be ugly.” In a similar vein, he had a spat with Lady Astor, who said “if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” Churchill replied: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
“A sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
Churchill’s droll insult about Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Churchill also said of his Labour rival: “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.” Not forgetting the classic “he is a modest man with much to be modest about.”
“Tony Benn is the only man I know who immatures with age.”
Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s verdict on Tony Benn. Benn, who as Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn had renounced his heriditary peerage, served as Wilson’s industry secretary after Labour’s narrow win in March 1974.
“He did not have political principle . . . he had short-term opportunism allied with a capacity for self-delusion which made Walter Mitty appear unimaginative.”
With friends like this . . . Labour Cabinet minister Dennis Healey on his former boss Harold Wilson. It’s a feature of British politics that some of the most splenetic insults are directed at politicians from within their own ranks.
“A shiver looking for a spine to run up.”
Harold Wilson’s jibe about Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath.
“A semi-trained polecat.”
Michael Foot, a future Labour leader, gave his verdict on Tory MP Norman Tebbit in March 1978 when he said: “It is not necessary that every time he rises he should give his famous imitation of a semi-trained polecat.” Tebbit later told the Telegraph: “It was a stupid thing for him to do. He was a great man of the Labour Left. I, until then, was a more or less unknown Conservative. He demeaned himself and gave my political career a tremendous lift.” Years later, Tebbit used a polecat in his coat-of-arms when he entered the House of Lords.
“Being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep.”
In June 1978, Labour chancellor of the exchequer Denis Healey was forced to defend his record in office after shadow chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe tabled a motion which sought to reduce the chancellor’s salary by half. The late Healey likened his late rival’s rhetorical onslaught to “being savaged by a dead sheep“. The government won the vote on the motion by only five votes. I remember Sir Geoffrey Howe was the man who handed me my first degree when I was unable to escape from attending the graduation ceremony and I kept thinking of this quote along with another classic from Spitting Image “The thing I’ve always admired about him is his electric pencil sharpener”
“I’ve met serial killers and assassins but nobody scared me as much as Mrs Thatcher.”
No modern politician divided opinion quite as starkly as Margaret Thatcher, described here by Labour’s Ken Livingstone. Thatcher had critics on her own side, too. Edward Heath, the man she embittered by beating him in a Conservative leadership contest, once responded with the words “I am not a doctor” when asked about Thatcher’s reign, implying that she was somehow not in her right mind. Sir Clement Freud dubbed Thatcher “Attila the Hen“. Labour Minister Dennis Healey once claimed that Margaret Thatcher mixed “the diplomacy of Alf Garnett with the economics of Arthur Daley.”
Michael Foot was famous for his Old Labour pedigree, his walking stick and his somewhat shabby appearance. He was lambasted for wearing a duffel coat at the Cenotaph remembrance day ceremony in 1981 (his coat was derided as a “donkey jacket”) and the sartorial insults added to the problems of a party leader whose succession had been greeted by Tory MP Kenneth Baker with the observation: “Labour was led by Dixon of Dock Green under Jim Callaghan. Now it is led by Worzel Gummidge.” Gummidge, a character created by novelist Barbara Euphan Todd, was played by Jon Pertwee on TV. Foot never lived down Baker’s jibe and was depicted as a scarecrow on ITV’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image.
“Pompous, trite, high-sounding, cautiously guarded… he might as well have a corn cob up his arse.”
Tory MP Alan Clark, a master of the political put down, is a good example of a Conservative who was usually most scathing about his own colleagues. His withering verdict on home secretary Douglas Hurd was matched by his views on Michael Heseltine (“An arriviste who buys all his own furniture“); Kenneth Clarke (“A pudgy puffball”) and John Gummer (“A poxy little runt“).
“Neil Kinnock is a windbag whose incoherent speeches spring from an incoherent mind.”
Norman Tebbit on Labour Leader Neil Kinnock who resigned in 1993 after Labour’s fourth consecutive defeat in a general election. Kinnock was also famous for falling over on Brighton beach.
“There is something of the night about him.”
Tory MP Anne Widdecombe’s memorable put-down about Michael Howard came after the pair clashed over the sacking of Prison Service director general Derek Lewis. Her insults was widely credited with destroying former Home Secretary Michael Howard’s hopes of winning the Tory leadership in 1997. Of course she must knowing something of this as one of her political nicknames is Doris Kharloff.
“More a ventriloquist’s dummy than a Prime Minister.”
The verdict on John Major of Tory MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. That’s probably one of the kinder things that can be said of him.
“When Edwina Currie goes to the dentist, he needs the anaesthetic.”
Labour health secretary Frank Dobson on the outspoken Tory MP Edwina Currie. In 2002, Former Prime Minister John Major admitted he had a four-year affair with the former Conservative minister Currie. Major described it as the most shameful event of his life. Currie’s career highlight turned out to be appearing on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!
“A pathological confidence-trickster.”
Former Conservative MP and writer Matthew Parris summed up the view about Tony Blair from many on both the right (Boris Johnson called him “a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness. Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall“) and possibly the left. Blair’s colleague Claire Short accused Blair of being “reckless with our government; reckless with his own future, position and place in history“.
“From Stalin to Mr Bean.”
Vincent Cable, who was then the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said of Labour leader Gordon Brown during prime minister’s questions in 2007: “The house has noticed the prime minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks – from Stalin to Mr Bean.” Even Labour MPs were laughing. In his memoirs, Tony Blair blamed his successor for Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election, claiming it was down to Brown moving away from “New Labour”. Blair called Brown “maddening” and said he had “emotional intelligence, zero“.
“I often say to my children ‘No need to go to the Natural History Museum to see a dinosaur, come to the House of Commons at about half past twelve’.”
David Cameron on Dennis Skinner in 2012 after the Labour MP, then 79, had asked the Prime Minister whether he would appear before Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into media standards, given that he had once employed former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as a press adviser.
“He ran his office like something out of The Thick of It.”
As the 2015 general election campaigning began to heat up, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg likened the Department for Education under Michael Gove to the parody TV show The Thick of It. In an unusually personal attack by one coalition minister on another, Clegg said: “I remember when I thought ‘this is just getting absurd’ was when someone explained to me that Michael Gove was personally handwriting lists of which medieval kings British schoolchildren should learn, according to his personal recollection of which kings and queens are important. I just thought: ‘This is something out of The Thick of It.’ You have the secretary of state personally instructing the hapless children of this country which medieval kings you want them to learn by rote.”
“People always ask me the same question, they say, ‘Is Boris a very very clever man pretending to be an idiot?’ And I always say, ‘No.‘”
Have I Got News for You captain Ian Hislop’s verdict on Boris Johnson, who was elected Mayor of London in 2008, having been MP for Henley from 2001-2008. Johnson has hosted HIGNFY four times and been a panellist on three other occasions. Johnson is famous for his blunders, including insulting the cities of Liverpool and Portsmouth and comparing women wearing Islamic clothing to appearing like letterboxes. . He also said of the Tory Party that it had “become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing“, a remark he had to withdraw and apologise for when he said: “I mean no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us. Add Papua New Guinea to my global itinerary of apologies.“
Boris Johnson had a lot of things to say about Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, likening her to King Herod, a jewel thief, Attila the Hun, Lady Macbeth and her party to “a bunch of voracious weevils”. Sturgeon also got it in the neck from staunch Scottish Socialist George Galloway, who called her “Thatcher in a kilt“.
“A pound shop Enoch Powell“.
Comedian Russell Brand during an appearance on BBC’s Question Time in 2014 compared UKIP leader Nigel Farage with Enoch Powell, the politician notorious for his “rivers of blood” speech in the Sixties attacking immigration. In 2006, David Cameron had told London radio station LBC that Ukip’s members were “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly“. He failed in his attempt to be the MP for Thanet and resigned before being largely credited for winning the Brexit referendum.
“A complete mug.”
The Punch and Judy style of Parliamentary ‘debate’ is a turn-off for many ordinary voters. Labour leader Ed Miliband has clashed with the Prime Minister regularly. Cameron once called his rival “the nothing man” and in 2011 got even more personal when he said: “There is a group of people on this side of the house who want some rebalancing, a group of people who want a lot rebalancing, and a complete mug who doesn’t want any rebalancing at all.” Cameron has also accused Miliband of “knifing” his brother in the back, referring to Ed’s victory over David Miliband in the Labour leadership battle. I still remember watching the news when this happened and wondering how Labour could have elected Ed in 2010 and thought then they will never win anything now.
In 2013, Cameron said that half of voters thought Miliband was Bert, a muppet from Sesame Street. Cameron, incidentally, once dubbed then Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Liam Byrne (a man with a shiny dome) “Baldemort“, a pun on Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort and in February 2016 taunted Jeremy Corbyn a PMQ’s by saying his mother’s advice to the labour leader would be: “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem“.
I didn’t envision ending with David Cameron but as I have, it reminded me of a wonderful quote he once said following the tragic death of his six year old son, Ivan.
“I loved the Boy with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and he is taken from me – yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it.“
The quote is originally one from William Wordsworth but it goes someway in proving I think that there is something to be said for having politicians who have a certain level of eloquence compared to the overwhelming majority today who seemingly have none.