A history of parliamentary sketch writers

Parliamentary sketch-writing in Britain has a long history. It dates back to May 1803, when the Speaker gave newspapers the right to report debates in the House of Commons.

The creation of a special gallery for journalists is regarded as one of the cornerstones of this nation’s claim to press freedom. Hence Lord Macaulay’s famous description of the gallery as the "Fourth Estate of the realm" and "the greatest safeguard of public liberty".

Most of the earliest Commons’ reporting amounted to verbatim accounts of speeches. Some writers, notably Charles Dickens, managed to lace their reports with humour. John Drew, professor of English Literature at Buckingham University and author of Dickens the Journalist, spoke of his articles as “vivid and immediate, wonderfully written, full of wit and satire”. 

Gradually, however, parliamentary reporting tended to become less critical. When I started my journalistic career in the mid-1960s, there was precious little humour to be mined in the dry national newspaper reports of MPs’ speeches.

By contrast, there had been biting wit in The Spectator’s sketches of the 1950s. Henry Fairlie – reputed coiner of the term “the establishment” – set the trend. And his successor, Bernard Levin, was rightly called “the father of the modern parliamentary sketch”.

Levin, who was also a drama critic for the Daily Express at the time, treated the Commons as if it were just another theatre. His irreverence was to become the norm for those who followed in his wake, particularly Frank Johnson, who took up sketch-writing for the Daily Telegraph in 1972.

It was Johnson who nicknamed Dennis Skinner “the Beast of Bolsover”. A former Telegraph editor, Max Hastings, regarded him as a “genius” for his sketch-writing columns.

Praise was also heaped on Matthew Parris during his stint as sketch-writer for The Times from 1988 until 2001. He emulated Johnson by giving one prominent MP, John Redwood, a soubriquet that has haunted him ever since: the Vulcan.

Parris, drawing on the Mr Spock character in Star Trek, contended that Redwood was “half human, half Vulcan” and wrote several pieces in which he lampooned the MP in similar fashion.

By the turn of the century, the journalists who looked down on their quarry from the Commons gallery were showing few inhibitions. They transformed the parliamentary sketch into a political pillory, pelting their victims with ordure.

Simon Hoggart, The Guardian’s brilliant sketch-writer from 1993 until his untimely death in 2014, mocked many Honourable Members. Nicholas Soames was a favourite target.

He once described him as a “magnificent… vast, florid spectacle, a massive inflatable frontbench spokesman. You could tow him out to a village fete and charge children 50p to bounce on him. They could have floated him over London to bring down the German bombers".

Hoggart was a hard act to follow, but John Crace has certainly risen to the challenge. He delights in short descriptions of his subjects: Mogadon Mike (Michael Fallon); Dim and Dimmer (Damian Green and Boris Johnson); Angry Amber (Rudd) and Dozy Diane (Abbott). He has cast Jeremy Hunt as the Condemned Man while tagging Theresa May as the Supreme Leader.

Observing May’s TV performance on Monday evening, he wrote: “Taking questions from real people. And Jeremy Paxman. Not easy for someone who struggles to talk human”.

But his tone, as with the best of such writers, is not really cruel. For Crace, it is good enough to draw blood with a foil. Better to let the MPs bind their wounds and return for more sport later.

By contrast, the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts prefers to wield a sabre in one hand and a bludgeon in the other. Despite his penchant for heavy-handed assaults, he can make readers laugh out loud and there is more subtlety in his work than first meets the eye.

In geographical terms, he was wrong to tag the former Speaker Michael Martin as “Gorbals Mick”, but so what? It was an apt way of undermining a Glaswegian whose hostility towards the press opened himself up to inevitable criticism.

Like Levin, Letts combines theatre reviewing with sketch-writing. There must be something of a link between the two jobs because the excellent former sketch-writer at The Times, Anne Treneman, became the paper’s chief theatre critic in 2015 after spending 12 years in the Commons.

In spite of, maybe because of, her American background, Treneman saw traits in her targets that we Brits might have missed, and she often had a winning turn of phrase.

Here she is on Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, the month before he was ditched as Tory leader: “The Quiet Man told us he was ‘turning up the volume’, each word said individually and slowly, as if they were tiny islands linked in their very own IDS archipelago. It was the kind of speech that you could knit to and not drop a stitch.”

As with Hoggart, her successor was always going to find it difficult to pick up her baton. No-one can surely dispute that Patrick Kidd has done just that. His daily sketches, combined with a highly readable diary column, TMS, have been a delight.

He has also exhibited a commendable political neutrality. He noted that the May-Jeremy Corbyn TV clash “wasn’t a true contest” because the prime minister refused to compete on the same pitch as Labour’s leader.

Kidd wrote: “I could have written before the start that Jeremy would have a bit of a shocker. Repetitive, tetchy, focused on the wrong things”. And then came the pay-off: “Yes, Paxman really has lost his game. Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, did well as Paxman flapped”.

Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s man in the gallery, saw the matter in similar terms: “Once Paxman was the most feared interviewer in broadcasting. After last night, I think we can safely say, no longer”.

Paxman’s “relentless interrupting actually appeared to get the studio audience on Mr Corbyn's side”. The interviewer’s “snorting irritability” backfired “and made Mr Corbyn look, at least in comparison, reasonable and sympathetic”.

Deacon, the paper’s former TV (as distinct from theatre) reviewer, was also illustrating fairness. This is a point often missed about our newspaper parliamentary sketch-writers.

Most of them are not overly partisan. They are equal opportunity critics, not so much holding politicians to account as holding them up to ridicule. Dickens would surely be proud of those who inherited his job.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*