I can think of only one reason for Robin Cook’s ridiculous reforms of the hours the House of Commons sits – to curry favour with the Parliamentary sketchwriters. After all, they are the ones who stand to gain most from a Parliamentary sitting which starts at 10am and finishes at 5pm – it gives them at least another three hours to hone their attacks on our beloved representatives. Quite why Cook should want to do this is somewhat unclear having been dubbed a “leprechaun” and a “garden gnome” and “the parliamentary equivalent of a gargoyle” by them.
The sketchwriters lead an odd existence - the gregariousness of the parliamentary lobby is not for them. They can usually be found huddled away scribbling in a notebook about a new idiosyncrasy they have spotted in an MP which can be squirreled away for use in a future column on a dull day. And believe me, on dull days the sketchwriters come into their own.
I have always fancied trying my hand at sketch writing but the thought of having to write 800 words laced with wit, humour and cruelty every day fills me with horror. The fact that The Guardian’s Simon Hoggart has managed to do it for more than 20 years is both a testament to his brilliance and eccentricity. A lesser man would have been carried off to the funny farm by now.
Sadly, we are about to lose two of our most eminent sketchwriters. Matthew Parris of The Times has had enough. He’s bowing out well before we’ve all had enough of him. And Frank Johnson of the Telegraph is soon to finish his second incarnation as the paper’s parliamentary sketchwriter. Parris is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever practitioners of this dark art and his successor Ben Macintyre has a tough act to follow.
They say footballers should never return to their original clubs as they are never quite the same and Frank Johnson’s second stint on the Telegraph has carried a whiff of that sentiment. His 1980s sketches were stamped with brilliance but his recent work carries some of the hallmarks of being completely bored by the modern day House of Commons. Johnson sketches during the early years of the Thatcher government were superb – but then he had more material to play with. In some ways, it is easy to feel a little sorry for those who ply the art of modern day sketchwriting – the parliamentary characters are few and far between. Gone are the days of Healey, Whitelaw, Benn, Heath, Castle, Williams, Jenkins, Tebbit and Howe. Instead the sketchwriters of today have to contend with the androgenous foibles of Stephen Byers, Alan Milburn, Gary Streeter, Theresa May and Geoff Hoon. God help them.
The 1970s and 1980s were truly halcyon days for sketchwriters. I well remember the brilliance of the Express sketchwriter Keith Raffan whose words I would read while munching on my pre-school breakfast of beans on toast. It was he who first got me interested in politics. Sadly for him, his later career as a Tory MP who then defected to the LibDems never really matched his journalistic one. Matthew Parris, of course, took the opposite route and turned to sketchwriting after becoming rather bored with life as a backbench Tory MP. But it was this experience that has maybe given him a better insight into the art of sketchwriting than most. Ex Tory MP Michael Brown followed his example and following his defeat in 1997 joined the Independent as sketchwriter. He only did the job for a year but was universally regarded as having done a good job. Brown says it was the most difficult year of his life. Some say that it is difficult to remain fresh after doing the sketch for more than a year or two, but the staying power of Parris and Hoggart tend to gainsay that line of argument.
Although they compete with each other but will never admit it, the coterie of sketchwriters actually operate a little cartel. They are often seen in a little huddle bouncing ideas off each other and agreeing on what was a particular highlight or lowlight each day. And if it helps them come up with words of spontaneous and witty brilliance, why not?
So it is with some sadness that next week we shall read Matthew Parris’s last ever parliamentary sketch. I am sure Stephen Byers will miss being called “the parliamentary equivalent of invisible ink”. Peter Mandelson will forever remain “the Angel of the North” – and my personal favourite – Betty Boothroyd is a “kinder garten teacher driven to her wits end”. Matthew, we’ll miss you.
You have to feel sorry for political satirist Nelson David. His George Bush Joke Book should have been published in mid September but was pulled by the publisher. Oh dear. Satire is undoubtedly another victim of Tony’s world war. Several publishers have been forced to abort books which they fear may be considered in ‘bad taste’, although I was delighted to see that John O’Farrell’s new book, Global Village Idiot, was published on time, replete with a cover image of George Bush piloting a bi-plane appearing to crash into Big Ben. Luckily no tall American buildings were visible otherwise a rather expensive pulping operation could have been in the offing. Perish the thought…
Iain Dale is owner of Politico’s Bookstore www.politicos.co.uk