The selection of the next prime minister has reached the stage at which television may be decisive. Across three peak-time slots – on Channel 4 (Friday), ITV (Sunday) and Sky News (Monday) – the remaining candidates debate live.
However, TV appearances the candidates made long ago may also prove crucial in deciding who becomes the next national leader, reflecting a recent change in the interaction between broadcasting and statecraft.
Biographers of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump will see as the key dates in their political careers 2017-21 and 2019-22, the years in which they governed the US and UK. (It is frighteningly likely that each man regards that period of office as merely their first term.) But it can be argued that the most important days on their legislative calendar were 29 November 2002, and 8 January 2004, when Johnson and Trump presented, respectively, their first editions of Have I Got News For You?, and The Apprentice.
Given the outcome of their administrations, it might be thought that the experiment with light entertainment stars running countries would be over. Yet, curiously, betting sites and opinion polls suggest that Britain may soon be run by a second peak-time TV star in a row. To the joy of TV journalists compiling emergency profiles of Penny Mourdant, she appeared in the second series of Tom Daley’s ITV celebrity diving competition, Splash!, in 2014.
Curiously, Mourdant’s current main rival also has an entry on his television CV outside the expected appearances on Question Time, The Sophy Ridge Show, and Politics Live. As revealed in a widely circulated clip, Rishi Sunak was featured, as a student, in the 2001 (repeated 2007) six-part BBC documentary, Middle Classes: Their Rise And Sprawl.
At the moment, it seems that Mourdant’s reality TV past has been good for her: one of the MPs supporting her, Bob Stewart, even used her returning to the high board after a belly flop as a metaphor for the resilience necessary to run Britain. Sunak, however, has suffered from the digging up of his younger self poshly confessing not to knowing any working-class people.
In fact, from the early stages of the leadership election, it would be possible to construct a rule for the politically ambitious: if offered a reality show, do it – but, if at school or uni, be wary of lodging a ticking video bomb in the archive. Mourdant, though, may be lucky that Tory attitudes to reality TV seem to have softened: in 2012, Nadine Dorries was suspended by the party for appearing in I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, although she recovered to become the current culture secretary.
The trend for TV-famous leaders has also extended elsewhere. Since the start of this month, the Israeli prime minister has been Yair Lapid, a talkshow host, songwriter and actor. And the torrent of future books about President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine will include enjoyable paragraphs about the improbability of his having been a TV comedy actor and the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukraine. Labour has not so far pursued this proved ratings route (Glenda Jackson, as MP and junior minister, seemed keen to suppress her screen past), although, if Ed Balls ever returned to electoral politics, his campaign video director could gleefully use clips from his 2016 Strictly Come Dancing run.
Although Trump reached high office before Johnson, it was “Britain Trump” (as the former Apprentice host called him) who wrote the playbook on TV as a route to power.
Movie stars – Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger – had shown the usefulness of instant recognisability – but it was Johnson who exploited the potential of becoming pre-known in the homes of millions of viewers. Seven appearances on Have I Got News For You? (1998-2006) and two on Top Gear helped him to become mayor of London from 2007, while a canny 2009 mayoral cameo in EastEnders popularised the persona he rode to 10 Downing Street.
Strikingly, some of Boris Johnson’s earliest TV appearances were in programmes fronted by Michael Portillo, who became a talkshow host and documentary presenter after losing his seat in 1997. Their most recent joint appearance – in Channel 5’s Portillo: The Trouble With the Tories – was a symbolic passing of the torch between a Tory who embraced TV after failing to become party leader and one who channelled the medium to succeed in the same quest.
One explanation of the phenomenon of box to high office is the digital-led acceleration of culture. Martin Bell, who interrupted a career as a TV foreign correspondent to become independent MP for the Cheshire constituency of Tatton from 1997-2001, recently spoke at the Bath literary festival about the political advantage of being a screen face: voters immediately know you and what they think you stand for, bypassing the difficult so-called “retail stage” of a campaign in which candidates sell themselves. Oddly, Tatton is currently held for the Tories by another former TV presenter, Esther McVey, who hosted shows including GMTV, The National Lottery Big Ticket, and Shopping City.
Although McVey would have been deputy prime minister if Jeremy Hunt had become PM, her broadcasting past has not been parlayed into high office, perhaps because she represents a pre-Johnson era when Tory MPs were expected to outgrow their showbiz roots when reaching Westminster.
On the Tory benches, Sir Roger Gale (a former pirate radio DJ and ex-Blue Peter producer) and Giles Watling (whose TV roles included the vicar in the sitcom Bread) have, as members for North Thanet and Clacton respectively, exposed their past careers only through a particular interest in broadcasting matters. Some of Watling’s colleagues on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports select committee looked surprised when, during a declaration of personal interests before a hearing on the BBC, he revealed he still received royalties from his sitcom career (he was in ‘Allo ‘Allo! and Bread.)
Until recently, Johnson could have assumed that TV presenting would be a large part of his post-premiership career, but may now find, like President Richard Nixon, that those who leave power in disgrace can monetise only interviews about that shaming.
So perhaps, in two senses, Johnson shows that it is better to have the TV career before power. Backers of Tom Tugenhadt specifically have specifically said they are banking on his making a breakthrough in the TV debates, where Liz Truss’s jerky nervousness may be exposed.
Tugendhadt may achieve this. Recent history suggests, though, that he would have been more sensible to have appeared on Strictly Come Dancing before running for PM.
July 15, 2022 at 09:22PM Mark Lawson