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FeaturesSeptember 18, 2014

An Election Only Malcolm Tucker Could Love


House of Cards has been the go-to fictional analogue for this election season. Toby Manhire, however, is voting for The Thick Of It. //

On a street in Rochdale in the spring of 2010, Gordon Brown forgot to take off his microphone. The British prime minister had been talking to a local pensioner, Gillian Duffy, as part of an entertaining, but for him mostly painful, election campaign. From his state limo, the Sky News lapel radio mic still active, came the famous Scottish grumble: “That was a disaster – they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous … She’s just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour.”

In base entertainment terms, this was glorious. The obligatory period of mawkish contrition and self-flagellation followed, including a disastrous radio appearance on the Jeremy Vine show, in which Brown could be seen via the studio webcam slouched lifelessly, head in hands, and a return visit to Mrs Duffy’s house to apologise over tea. It was, pretty much everyone said, like something straight out of The Thick of It. What, we wondered, would Malcolm Tucker say?

As luck would have it, the Guardian comment desk had commissioned the hideously unpleasant and much-loved spin-doctor – via senior Thick of It writer Jesse Armstrong – to write a weekly campaign diary for us, as if he were advising the Brown campaign.

So, Bigotgate. I’ve been round and round this, and the only thing I can see that could pull it back for us is if we can manufacture belief in the potential existence of grainy footage of fatfaced [David] Cameron hunched over a TV monitor violently masturbating while watching your Vine show appearance on a loop. We need to be flying this as a comical notion for the cynical that is also actually true for the credulous.

Re the Bigot Event, you need to be careful of letting it get into perspective. The thing to remember is that it’s definitely as bad as it first seemed. You know how all through Wednesday night you were waking up in a dank sweat and everything seemed just so terrible? When you called me and all you could do was moan and your emotional level was reduced to a sort of “Hulk–smash” state? That is how bad it is.

If the vile Tucker was a comforting voice along that trail, he could hardly be better suited for New Zealand’s hallucinogenic political experience of recent weeks. In fact, Tucker once said: “Just a note regarding the repeated claim that this is going to be at some point the dirtiest election campaign in history. Please, can people stop saying this shit to me unless they mean it, because you know how excited it gets me.” But you can’t help suspect that even the man who gave the world the word “omnishambles” might be impressed by the vein-bulging excesses in our 100% Pure country of late.

Mana-Dotcom. Dirty politics. Grubby bloggers. Crushed Crushers. Smear! Conspiracy! Greenwald and Snowden and Assange and Kim Dotcom feasting on the flesh of the political establishment in the Auckland Town Hall. And, in case that doesn’t do it for you, a legal challenge from Eminfuckingem. This is life imitating slashfic.

Politics, and elections especially, lend themselves to dramatic metaphor (apart from the debates, which by royal decree must always be compared with boxing matches or horse races). Shakespeare is always around. Orwell, this time, has had a good few mentions prompted by the Edward Snowden sourced bombshells. I’ve seen Kafka’s name bandied about a bit, too.

The dirty, filthy, nasty, despicable antics detailed in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics and hacker Rawshark’s colossal online dumps had the House of Cards allusions flying like shit from a fan (there is no suggestion anyone was actually pushed in front of a train, not literally). One Danish television aficionado suggested last week, “Possibly the best thing now would be nightly prime time screenings of Borgen right up to election day.” Which would be help as a primer for coalition wrangling, but on the whole might seem like a fairly staid documentary against the melodrama of the 2014 edition of Election NZ.

And then there’s The Thick of It.

The dirty, filthy, nasty, belligerent backwaters of the blogosphere laid bare in the early part of this NZ campaign inspired many hundreds, or at least four or five, people to tweet the clip of Tucker (series 3, episode 3) offering his assessment of those who blog.

I read all the blogs, because basically I’m an unemployed fat fucking loser with nothing better to do with my time than sit in my bedroom like a fat spacehopper in a tracksuit, reading inconsequential, un-spellchecked shit, fabricated by other fat, foul, fucking losers.

For the true beating heart of The Thick of It, however, you need to leap forward to the hour-long penultimate episode of the final, fourth series. We’re at the Goodling Inquiry, which has been set up to investigate Britain’s culture of leaking (“you might as well have an inquiry into gravity”, scoffs Tucker’s opposing spin-doctor, Stewart Pearson, in an ealier episode).

The imagined hearing, which fills the entire episode, is an answer to both the Chilcott Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war, which ran from late 2009 to early 2011 (we’re still waiting for the report to be published), and the Leveson Inquiry of 2011-2012, which was tasked with looking into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News of the World’s dirty, filthy, nasty, creepy and, it turns out, criminal hacking of all those phones.

The Leveson inquiry, the hearings for which wrapped up just a few months before the final series of The Thick of It screened, was in some ways bizarrely funnier than the Goodling Inquiry. Chief inquisitor Robert Jay, especially, was a mile more amusing than any of Goodling’s interrogators.

One of the most eagerly anticipated guests at both of the real inquiries was Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s brilliant and abrasive head of communications, and the man most often seen as the model for Tucker.

In fact, it wasn’t just Campbell. “The character was never supposed to be an impression of Campbell,” Armando Iannucci told the British freesheet mag Shortlist. “Malcolm is him, Damian McBride (former advisor to Gordon Brown), and the 10 others we’ve never heard of. There’s a whole school of people who are unelected but very powerful because they’re the prime minister’s right-hand men. They live off testosterone and adrenaline. Malcolm represents all of them.”

You may recognise the characterisation. That could describe plenty of the characters who star in Nicky Hager’s gobsmacking work of non-fiction, Dirty Politics.

Iannucci mentioned McBride. The former spin doctor for Gordon Brown was a dirty, filthy, nasty, brutal, vicious, duplicitous piece of work. Now a reformed character, McBride would stop at little in pursuit of the cause, which wasn’t simply the Labour party, but his man Brown versus the hated Blair. He made Jason Ede, even Cameron Slater, look like a choir boy.

But that is what The Thick of It was about. The way governments and party machines – Blair’s, Brown’s, and even those, it seems, in the faraway little Westminster of the Beehive – scrap to get the message out. The way they spin and launder and back-channel information, seeding stories, poisoning reputations, sexing it up, all of it fed by the popular appetite for muck.

The truth in The Thick of It is what makes it funny, but it also makes it more than just funny, and it’s what makes it absolutely fine that in its most heartfelt episode, it needn’t be that funny at all. It’s dead tragic, really.

So Tucker says (and much of this apparently is improvised):

Let me tell you this. The whole planet’s leaking. Everybody is leaking. You know, everyone’s spewing up their guts onto the internet, putting up their relationship status and photos of their Vajazzles.

We’ve come to the point where there are people, millions of people, who are quite happy to trade a kidney in order to go on television. And to show people their knickers, to show people their skidmarks, and then complain to OK Magazine about a breach of privacy! The exchange of private information – that is what drives our economy. But you come after me because you can’t arrest a landmass, can you? You can’t cuff a country. You can’t lynch that guy there, can you?

But you decide that you can sit there, that you can judge and you can ogle me like a Page Three girl. You don’t like it? Well, you don’t like yourself. You don’t like your species, and you know what? Neither do I, but how dare you come and lay this at my door. How dare you blame me for this. Which is the result of a political class which has given up on morality and simply pursues popularity at all costs. I am you and you are me.

Malcolm Tucker, philosopher-schemer, is in many ways the evil grandson of Sir Humphrey Appleby, of the richly brilliant Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister series. Not that that old diamond has anything to say about the fruitloop New Zealand election of 2014. Or does it? The minister-turned-PM was, was he not, called Hacker. The conspiracy deepens.

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