The beanstalk’s on fire

Although my family were immigrants to the UK, few noted it. We sometimes got a day off school for Thanksgiving and my father followed live sporting events in the middle of the night, but we could generally pass as natives in 1980s Britain. However, some elements of UK life remained baffling to us. What was salad cream? Why was the cultural highlight of the village carnival a float featuring the local barber dressed in nothing but a mermaid tail and a pair of rubber breasts, above a sign which said: “Spirit of Burnham”? And what – in the name of shuddering fuck – was a panto?

For the uninitiated, the Christmas pantomime is utterly impenetrable – packed with stock characters, dreadful performances, pointless crossdressing and people shrieking about which characters are behind which until they lose their voices and their eyeballs burst. It’s like Noh theatre for people who have been hit in the head with a brick. It’s not meant to be “good” it’s just meant to divert you from midwinter misery.

All of which makes panto an excellent Christmassy metaphor for our political class. Britain’s politicians aren’t trying to be good at their jobs, or good at governing, or even good at politics. They’re just trying to distract us from despair. They’re desperately busking their way through a front-of-curtain singalong so we won’t notice all the sets have fallen over, the beanstalk’s on fire and the back end of the cow appears to be drunk.

Welcome to Rishi-Washee’s, where we launder money and reputations! Jeremy Hunt will toss sweets to the expensive seats and hiss at the paupers. Robert Jenrick was born to play Buttons, despite looking like the halfway stage in Animal Farm’s final transformation from pig to man. Thigh-slapping, sword-carrying principal boy Penny Mordaunt will mug through the smut, before a cackling Suella De Ville bursts through the trap door, banishing her to Rwanda, along with half the audience.

And here, bustling out of the wings after another extravagant costume change, comes an old hand. It’s Widow Crafty, David Cameron (soon to be ennobled as Baron Fukdup). His return to frontline politics is all the evidence any of us should need that this government is based on spectacle rather than any form of plan. It’s like Sunak saw how excited people were about David Tennant coming back as Doctor Who and assumed people were pining for the heady days of austerity, the AV referendum and the MPs’ expenses scandal. This would only have worked if David Tennant had quit Doctor Who after losing the TARDIS in a poker game and was spied cadging tenners off the actors who succeeded him.

Cleverly and McVey are two back ends of a panto equine, spouting horseshit

Sunak, of course, doesn’t have many options. He’s making a silk purse from a sow’s ear – which isn’t the worst thing a member of his government is alleged to have done with a dead pig’s head. Not only has David Cameron spent most of the last few years travelling the world, hawking himself to the highest bidder like an Aldi own-brand Prince Andrew, but his only recent quantifiable public achievement has been narrowly avoiding censure for the Greensill Capital scandal.

Cameron spent much of 2020 lobbying the Treasury and directly applying to Sunak to get Greensill Capital a government guaranteed covid loan. The Boardman report said that Cameron had “on occasion understated the nature of his relationship with Greensill Capital”. While the House of Commons treasury committee found that what he had done was within the rules, this was only because the “rules had insufficient strength” and there was “a good case for strengthening them”. To summarise: it wasn’t quite illegal, but it probably should have been. The committee also found him guilty of “a significant lack of judgement”.

Yes, the former PM can boast that he didn’t actually break any rules, but Lord Hameron of Chipping Snorton is almost as lax with the truth as his schoolmate and successor. Still, Dave’s record of success means he’ll be a huge asset to the government. Smash hits like the whole Brexit thing, raising university fees to £9,000 a year, and the time he forgot his daughter in a pub. He’ll find a welcome retreat among the vermin in ermine.

Bad US politicians have all the worst tropes of reality TV: vulgarity, paranoia and a propensity for violence (see Ohio senator Markwayne Mullin challenging a union leader to a fight in the Senate chamber). Ours are different; they are culturally specific idiots, steeped in pantomime, playing to the most vocal part of the crowd and dealing in crude stereotypes. James Cleverly and Esther McVey are two back ends of a panto equine, both spouting horseshit wherever they go. They say you get the politicians you deserve, but nobody deserves Michael Gove, not even his SPADs.

It’s tempting to despair when we look at this cast of grotesques, screeching and throwing things on our national stage. We might wonder where Britain’s best years have gone. And the answer will come, shouted back from the whole audience: “They’re behind you…”.

Nathaniel Tapley is a comedy writer and performer on the TV shows you hate

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Columns, December 23 / January 24, Ephemerant

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