When I first started on this newspaper’s Diary column (still this millennium, but only just), we had a rolling competition called Stupidest MP, which aimed to celebrate Westminster’s non-finest minds. So many memories – too many to choose from, in some ways. But Archie Hamilton, then Tory member for Epsom and Ewell and a former 1922 committee chairman, was a perennial candidate. The Diary had previously contacted Sir Archie asking if he would sit an intelligence test, to which he had tentatively – and indeed bizarrely – agreed, as long as others did it with him. Alas, what we might politely term a “peer group” could not be found for some years.
But everything changed when news emerged of a “talking” chimpanzee named Panbanisha that resided at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. A call to Hamilton’s office was immediately placed. When he came to the phone, Sir Archie was asked whether he had seen the stories about this creature. He had? Very good. In which case: would he be willing to participate in an intelligence test against the chimp? Very regrettably, Sir Archie declined the opportunity, forcing the Diary to make a subsequent call to Conservative Central Office. “We can’t say to him ‘You must do it’,” fretted a press officer there. “If it’s something he feels he couldn’t do well, we can’t make him.” Understood. Had she any other suggestions? “What about someone from our education team? There’s Theresa May … ”
When Archie announced his retirement as an MP – he’s in the House of Lords now, obviously – we again called his office to arrange a fitting tribute. Would he finally do the animal kingdom the honour of taking the test, only this time against a mynah bird? “Are you serious?” wondered his agent. Yes. We have the bird on standby. There was a ruminative pause. “Look, I don’t think it’s Archie’s cup of tea. We’re Conservatives, you see. We have certain proprieties.”
I suppose the point of this lengthy preamble is to set up the question: has anyone got a mynah bird to hand? Alternatively, has anyone got a chimp, talking or otherwise? For while Archie has taken his brains to the Lords, his spirit lives on in the Commons. In fact, there would have been two very strong candidates for Stupidest MP this week, from opposite sides of the house.
We’ll begin with an eye-catching Westminster speech on the subject of international men’s day, which has long served as an occasion to draw out the cream of parliamentary intelligentsia. Announcing himself as one of their number was the Don Valley MP, Nick Fletcher, who delivered a neuron-killing address about a crisis in masculinity. “Everywhere … there seems to be a call from a tiny, but very vocal, minority that every male character or good role model must have a female replacement,” explained Nick. “One only needs to consider the discussions around who will next play James Bond.” Not really – it’ll be a man, but go on. “In recent years we have seen Doctor Who, the Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker and the Equalizer all replaced by women, and men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby.” Think he’ll find they’re mostly on TikTok and not bothered about this either way. But it’s the extrapolation that’s the really special bit: “Is there any wonder we are seeing so many young men committing crime?” Nick would later refer to this as “a rather nuanced point”, to which the only possible rejoinder is: no. Incorrect.
Anyway, on to Labour’s Jon Trickett, who detected in Boris Johnson’s gibberingly shambolic Peppa Pig meltdown on Monday not simply a strategy, but a complex and brilliant strategy. “Peppa Pig,” explained Jon, “was a media distraction to disguise the handover of your NHS to private health.” Oh dear. Please, not the “dead cat”. I don’t know if you can technically kill a dead cat, but if this phrase were to be robbed of the ability to appear in British political discourse ever again, it would be of great benefit.
Alas, among a certain breed of political watchers, the mention of dead cats has become almost reflexive. Everything is a dead cat for something else, and there must always be an unseen play at work. The dead cat is a close ally of other conspiracist assumptions that bolster those simply unable to accept that the political upheavals of the last few years were not largely the work of the Russians, or Cambridge Analytica, or any other hidden master villains manipulating the poor, stupid voters. These things might have made a small amount of difference. But the alternative, and in my view accurate, reading is that the UK basically cocked everything up/liberated itself on its own. With some low-level assistance, yes, but all the elements were already there. And yet in many political tribes this is regarded as unthinkably simplistic, probably out of a self-regarding inability to confront the fact.
In the vast, vast majority of cases, dead cats are just a story people like to tell themselves – perhaps to sound cleverer, but more probably just to feel better. As a long-term Jeremy Corbyn supporter, you can quite see why Trickett needs to think some kind of fiendish mastery was underpinning Johnson’s Peppa meltdown: the alternative is facing up to the bald reality that people actually preferred THIS GUY to his guy. Which, let’s face it, is quite telling enough.
All in all, then, an impressive week for Stupidest MP, an eminently revivable contest for which we might have to start coming up with some prizes. The chance to be rebooted with a female mynah bird? Or the opportunity to go head to head in an intelligence test with a dead cat?