Back in 2007 Norwich North MP Ian Gibson experienced what is commonly known as ‘foot in mouth’ incident, when he appeared to describe the whole of the county of Norfolk as ‘inbred’. It was the latest in the line of political gaffes which have damaged and sometimes ended the careers of those whom were unfortunate enough to utter them. Like Gerald Ratner’s ‘our jewellery is crap’ outburst, the thing most of these utterances have in common is that they are entirely spontaneous and unplanned.
*UPDATE 24/9 4pm: Rather hilariously Gerald Ratner has been in touch to threaten me with legal action if I don’t remove the mention to him in this article (above). Ratner made a speech addressing a conference of the Institute of Directors at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 April 1991. During the speech, he commented:
“ We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”, I say, “because it’s total crap.”
He says he was only referring to that one article, not everything. Funny how no one took it that way at the time. So, no apology, but happy to allow you to make up your own mind.
Take former Conservative Candidate, Orlando Fraser, for instance. Fraser, the son of Lady Antonia Fraser, was considered quite a catch by North Devon Conservatives – most especially those with an unmarried daughter. Well-connected, handsome and rich he was clasped firmly to the ample bosom of the blue rinse brigade - until he committed a bit of a clanger, that is. For in an interview with an American magazine Fraser was asked if he would consider marrying a North Devon lass. “They’re all notoriously hideous,” he protested. Cue uproar in North Devon and an embarrassing apology from Mr Fraser.
Another Conservative with foot in mouth disease was former Transport Minister Roger Freeman, who suggested that one of the benefits of rail privatisation would be a wider choice and that secretaries might be able to enjoy ‘cheap and cheerful’ early morning trains, while businesspeople could enjoy luxury travel a little later. Mr Freeman wisely went into the office the next day carrying boxes of chocolates for the secretaries in his private office.
Freeman’s fellow chauffer-driven Transport Minister Steven Norris plunged himself into similar gaffe-prone depths when he said he quite understood why people used cars because people did not like sitting on buses or trains next to “horrible, smelly people”. He apologised and lived to fight another two London mayoral campaigns.
The much missed Labour rent-a-quote MP Tony Banks upset his constituents when, shortly after announcing he would stand down at the 2005 election, he told them he was ‘fed up with their complaints’ and they were ‘tedious in the extreme’. I suppose calling one’s constituents ‘tedious’ is slightly less insulting than calling them ‘inbred’, but the resulting furore was if anything worse than that which Dr Gibson endured.
Another rent-a-gob MP, the deliciously indiscreet Edwina Currie, referred to Dennis Skinner as “Derbyshire born and Derbyshire bred, Strong in the arm and thick in the head,” momentarily forgetting her own constituency was South Derbyshire. Strange that she proceeded to lose her seat at the next election.
Back in 2004, Boris Johnson, was forced into an humiliating apology to the City of Liverpool for saying that it was“wallowing in its victim status”. Most people took the view that ‘Boris will be Boris’ but Liverpool lost its collective sense of humour and demanded his head on a platter. Instead Michael Howard ordered Boris to Liverpool to apologise in person. A more ritual defenestration of a Tory front bencher could hardly be imagined. But it worked. Boris then became an Ambassador for Liverpool’s bid to be European City of Culture. You couldn’t make it up.
One of my favourite gaffes comes from Down Under. Philip Smythe, the former leader of the New South Wales Liberal/National Party Coalition, was flying into Auckland to attend a political conference. Just after the cabin crew had announced “please put your watches back 1 hour” he added (loudly) “and your minds back 20 years”. He was not aware that the editor of the New Zealand Herald newspaper was sitting directly behind and promptly reported the gaffe on the following day’s front page. To misquote the famous wartime saying, “careless talk can cost political careers”.
Clare Short has been a one woman source of gaffes for many years. In 2003, as International Development Secretary, she caused a diplomatic row by saying the leaders of the Caribbean island of Montserrat would be demanding “golden elephants next” as they repaired damage after a volcano disaster. Fellow Labour MP Bernie Grant spluttered: “She sounds like a mouthpiece for an old 19th-century colonial and Conservative government.” An apology of sorts was eventually dragged from between her clenched teeth.
Something Clare Short had in common with former Thatcher Cabinet Minister Nicholas Ridley was an ability to give an honest opinion without giving a damn for the consequences. Shortly after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster at Zeebrugge Ridley made a crass remark that in pursuing a particular policy he would not be sailing with his bow doors open. He issued an immediate apology. Four years later Ridley gave an injudicious interview to the Spectator in which he described the EU as a ‘German run racket, designed to take over the whole of Europe’. It was one gaffe too far and his resignation soon followed and was a key point on the route to Margaret Thatcher’s own eventual downfall.
So what can we learn from these unfortunate momentary errors of judgment? There are two common threads in the anecdotes I have described. Most of the culprits were near the end of their political careers and therefore may have been rather more carefree in their comments, sunning themselves in an ‘end of term’ atmosphere.
Another common theme is that most of the culprits apologized immediately, and most of them – but not all - managed to hang on to their jobs and their careers.
They can all ruefully on a quote from Michael Kinsey who said: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” There’s something in that.
This piece is actually largely based on an article I wrote for the Eastern Daily Press in 2007. I’m now thinking I might turn it into a proper book. If you have any great examples of political gaffes I might include, from anywhere in the world, do please send me the details via the Contact button at the top of the page.