How NOT to be an MP – and how Sunny Jim said I’d have to ‘smarten down’ to be one

It’s been about four decades since the politics’ bug bit deeply enough to inspire me to join a party. And, in retrospect, when I signed up with Labour I was a Blairite – socially liberal, but sympathetic to the blessings of capitalism – before Blair was even out of short pants.

The dalliance didn’t last long because, frankly, I wasn’t too enamoured at being called  ‘Comrade’ and I thought the far-Left was as inveterately potty as it is now, except in those days of beer and butties for the TUC in Harold Wilson’s Downing Street, the leadership had to pay it lip service.

Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ revolution energised me; clearly he could walk and chew gum at the same time, a feat that was rumoured to have defeated US President Gerald Ford.

By default, I nearly – well, almost nearly – became an MP, because James Callaghan, who followed Wilson as the UK’s Prime Minister (briefly, thank providence), took a shine to me when yours truly and a fellow hack prised him out of a tight spot.

Tall and avuncular, but the craftiest of operators, Sunny Jim was Foreign Secretary at the time and due to address the faithful at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, until an event of import erupted and caught him off guard. So momentous was it, it’s completely slipped my memory, but, with no spinmeister on hand, we were drafted in to fettle a few words.

So we banged away on a portable typewriter in his hotel suite at the Midland Hotel until four in the morning, trying to fashion an immortal slogan as the room trembled to Jim’s stentorian snoring.

Work prevented me from witnessing the speech, but he invited me for a drink later and thanked me with a five-bob bottle of Cyprus sherry (whatever happened to Champagne Socialism, I wanted to ask).

Instead Callaghan enquired, ‘Have you ever thought of standing?’

‘I am standing,’ I replied stupidly, leaning against the bar.

‘No, I meant standing for Parliament,’ he corrected me. ‘I think you’d make a pretty fair MP and I’m sure we can find you a winnable seat somewhere. But you’ll have to do something about your attire.’

Clad in one of Cecil Gee’s finest blue mohair creations, crisp white shirt, black knitted tie – a la James Bond – I thought I was the cat’s whiskers or some part of a canine’s anatomy.

‘What’s wrong with the way I look?’ I demanded, a tad irked.

‘Too…er, smart,’ said the Foreign Sec. ‘You’ll need to dress down a bit. Get yourself to John Collier and find something grey, the duller the better. And dump those pointy Italian shoes. You’ll need to be more conservative – that’s conservative with a small C, of course.’

For various reasons – including a word to the wise from an MP friend, who warned, ‘You don’t want to be at the mercy of the public; they’re all b******s’ – I decided to stick around Grub Street and pursue the wordsmith’s trade (besides, way back then, the pay was better and MPs hadn’t cottoned on to being as ‘creative’ with their exes as we journos were).

What prompts me to recall the Callaghan incident is that, according to a new study, reported in the Journal of Public Economics, the electorate prefers good-looking, well-dressed election candidates to dowdy, old frumps, like Jim and pipeman Harold were.

So, regardless of how intellectually shallow they may be, the more attractive someone seeking office is, the more trustworthy, intelligent, likeable and able they are perceived.

MP MATERIAL? A flashback to way back when Callaghan had high political hopes for me

MP MATERIAL? A flashback to way back when Callaghan had high political hopes for me

The study – based on a survey of 2,000 candidates and 10,000 voters in Finland– followed in the wake of revelations that a poster photo of David Cameron had been digitally enhanced to make the Prime Minister look a smarter alec than he is (which, given the self-inflicted lumber he’s currently in, wouldn’t seem too challenging even for a Photoshop novice).

However facile this seems, the authors of this report insist, ‘Attractive people are seen as more successful in general, which is as true of politics as it is of showbusiness.’

Clearly, the Finns hadn’t heard of Britain’s roly-poly Communities minister, Eric ‘Double Chicken Tikka Masala & Chips’ Pickles and UKIP’s Nigel Farage, done up like a distressed turf accountant.

Nonetheless, it might explains why super-smoothie Blair could sell fridges to Eskimos, why hunky Nick Clegg leads the Lib-Dems, not baggy-trousered Vince Cable, and why all freshmen/women MPs are packed off to a ‘style consultant’ to be cloned in a make-over before they’re even allowed a sniff of Parliament.

And you’d better not be follicly challenged in British politics. Churchill was the only baldie in over 60 years to be elected Prime Minister, but he compensated for his shiny pate with charisma, cognac and trademark stogie cigars. Helping win WW2 might also have counted.

By the by, just in case political history geeks think me remiss, hair-free Alec Douglas Home was never elected to the job. He was imposed on No.10 by the Tories to oust Harold ‘Supermac’ MacMillan, whose party chums convinced him he was dead or dying.

Therefore, if you’re partial to the chimes of Big Ben, like long holiday recesses, adore the sound of your own voice and can stomach an hour a week feigning sympathy for bleating constituents, your country needs you.

It helps if you’ve never done a proper job – if you’re not an Old Etonian, straight out of uni and a year or two’s apprenticeship as a party HQ dogsbody or political researcher to an unctuous backbencher will do – and you’re half way to being elected.

Don’t forget, either, to dress appropriately…classy, not flashy and something subtle, like a tie or scarf in the party colour, is a useful addendum to demonstrate loyalty (until you join the back-stabbers).

Get your teeth and acne sorted, too, because high-definition TV is a real image-buster and you don’t wanted to be caught out looking like a spotty, buck-toothed loser on Newsnight, while getting a verbal stuffing by Jeremy Paxo.

In short, then, remember: youth and image are cheered, age and experience just jeered.

And me? Obviously, I was way ahead of my time. Today, though, I could have been a contender…but heaven help the electorate if I was!

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2 thoughts on “How NOT to be an MP – and how Sunny Jim said I’d have to ‘smarten down’ to be one

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