Jack Lesgrin’s week: No one ever forgets a gaffe

By Jack Lesgrin

No one forgets, even if you regret (the crap)

It’s hardly up there with “do you remember where you were when Kennedy was assassinated/for the moon landing/on 9-11”, but readers of a certain vintage will recall their shock, perhaps sprinkled with a pinch of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ voyeurism at jewellery retailer Gerald Ratner’s infamous 1991 speech to the Institute of Directors in which he uttered the immortal line that led to the collapse of his company: “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’”.

Last week, Mr Ratner issued a rather moving tweet, writing “It is 30 years today when I made ‘that’ speech. It seems like yesterday. I wish it was tomorrow. I would cancel it.” What is it about certain gaffes that capture the public’s attention and persist for years, or even decades, while others that might be regarded as worse by any objective analysis, are overlooked? The 30th anniversary of the Ratner speech fell during the week of the tenth anniversary of ‘Ed Balls Day’ (28 April), in which thousands of Twitter users re-enact how the then Shadow Chancellor accidentally tweeted his own name while reportedly attempting to search for an article about himself. It caught the popular imagination, for comedic reasons, and this year’s ‘day’ was even reported by The New York Times no less.

While we’re on the subject of gaffes by Labour politicians that linger on in the public’s imagination, I’m reminded of the cringe-making letter that Labour’s then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne left on his desk for his successor after the 2010 general election, stating simply “I’m afraid there is no money.” David Cameron carried a facsimile of the letter around with him for years to come to twist the knife about alleged Labour profligacy.

Byrne wrote a heartfelt mea culpa in The Observer in 2015, saying that “People’s anger – and my party’s anger – at me, will never ever match my anger with myself or my remorse at such a crass mistake.” A politician expressing remorse and regret about their gaffes and mistakes, and the public actually caring. It feels like a bygone era.

PMQs question is a mute point 

Readers may be shocked to know that very occasionally, ministers, or in this case, the Prime Minister, are sometimes given advanced notice of the questions they will be asked by their own backbenchers. Some scurrilous cynics even allege that on rare occasions, Ministers write the questions that their junior colleagues ask.

On Wednesday, Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle duly called Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns – who defeated said Mr Balls in 2015 – to ask the first supplementary question at Prime Minister’s Questions. “Andrea…”, he said, before the few MPs in the Commons chamber looked up to the large flat screen TVs that have a whiff of 1984 about them. But there was only silence. “You’re on mute, I think, Andrea,” interjected Mr Speaker.

You could see Jenkyns fiddling with her computer, but to no avail. Smoothing out such Covid-era logistical crises are par for the course for the Speaker and his deft handling of this one was pitch perfect in gently ribbing the very PMQs format for the pantomime that it so often is.

Turning to the PM he asked: “have you got the answer [laughter from MPs]..Tells more about PMQs. I am sure the Prime Minister knows the answer, Prime Minister?” But the PM merely shuffled in his seat, not wanting to read out his scripted answer to a question that hadn’t been uttered. So, Mr Speaker closed with “he can’t do it”, before moving on to the Leader of the Opposition, whose questions Mr Johnson certainly didn’t have advance sight of.

Having unmuted herself, Jenkyns’s question was duly heard later in the session and turned out to be the epitome of a planted question. She asked the PM whether he agreed “that for far too long Labour has taken our northern heartlands for granted?” and therefore shouldn’t the people of Hartlepool “elect patriotic, hard-working northerners such as Matt Robinson, Ben Houchen, and Jill Mortimer” so we can “seize the chance to build back better after the pandemic”, before concluding that “only the Conservatives will deliver on that.” Johnson’s answer was full of soundbites and delivered as if it had been written out for him. The wonders of democracy never cease.

Flat battery

In a week when people could talk of little else than Flat-gate, I enjoyed a tweet by former Gordon Brown adviser Theo Bertram in which he suggested a new TV show: “like Brewster’s Millions but Gordon Brown has to spend £58,000 on cushions for the Downing Street flat.” Readers of this diary will know my view that our system has no real checks and balances when a government has a large majority, so as an antidote to the demands for the 78th parliamentary inquiry and 24th royal commission, a little light relief was much appreciated.

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5 Responses to “Jack Lesgrin’s week: No one ever forgets a gaffe”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Diane Abbott has called for the whip to be restored for corbyn

    This is the equivalent of had Peter Griffith( the vote labour, if you want a Coloured for a neighbour for a poster, guy and deselected 16 months later of 1964 fame ) demand Ted Heath re instate Enoch Powell after he was sacked for the rivers of blood speech “ to unite the party” after feb lost the Feb 74 election

    As if RAB butler
    Would have tolerated that

  2. Tafia says:

    And the Batley by-Election is on.

    Brabin has just been appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern by Rishi Sunak, the mechanism whereby MPs quit their seat.

    The Tories would probably have taken it last time out except for Brexit Party and an Independent that was head of the local UKIP. This was a heavy Leave seat in 2016 (60% leave).

    Brabin (Lab) 22,594
    Brooks (Con) 19,069
    Halloran (Heavy Woollen District Independents (UKIP)) 6,432
    Lawson (LDem)2,462
    Minihan (BXP) 1,678
    Akram (Grn) 692

    If Labour had any sense they would resurrect Caroline Flint for this seat – relatively local and accepts the Brexit result, she would probably win it. Then depose Starmer anyway and make Flint leader and Burnham Deputy Leader. Luckily sense and Labour are mutually exclusive. Bookies already have it odds-on to go Tory.

    In the council elections last week, the Tories narrowly beat Labour. There are already cries from local Labour activists to reach a pact with the Greens and Lib Dems to stand aside – which is shocking really and shows how far Labour have fallen when they no longer have confidence in holding one of their own safe seats unless other people dont stand.

    First post-locals national Poll

    Redfield & Wilton, 10 May
    Con: 45%
    Lab: 34%
    LDem 8%
    Grn 5%
    Oth: 8%

  3. Tafia says:

    This term will see the scrapping of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the final vote on Patels Crime Bill and it then brought onto the statute books, simplifcation of the planning process, and voter ID amongst other things.

    Having voter ID is incredibly popular with voters poll after poll shows (usually 70%-plus). It’s a ‘winner’ in the policy game – it doesn’t cost anything and it gives the majority what they want. That’s actually how you win elections.

    There will be other forms of ID acceptable besides photo ID – any two from utility bills, bank statements, TV licence, firearms certificate, car insurance, life insurance, possessions insurance, council tax bill, NHS card, etc etc etc etc. Basically any two official documents that display your name and address, or one acceptable photo ID (drivers licence, passport, students union card, rail card, bus pass etc etc)

    It won’t be only photo ID – it’s just that if you have a qualifying form of photo ID (such as a driving licence, rail card, passport, students union ID, bus pass etc etc ), you will only need that. Other than that you will need two acceptable forms of paper ID. Basically it will be ‘produce one form of photo-ID from Group A, or two acceptable forms of paper ID from Group B.’

    These days, you need acceptable ID to register at a GP, claim benefits, register for social housing, get a tenancy, open a bank account, go to university or college and most potential employers these days insist on you proving your right to live and work in the UK and proving your address at interview. You should see what’s needed just to get an SIA security licence to be a minimum waged security guard on a supermarket door.

    You can’t even collect a parcel from the post office these days without acceptable ID.

  4. Landless Peasant says:

    Liam Byrne, what a nob, thank feck he’s gone.

  5. andy williams says:

    Diane Abbott is the intermission comedy act to keep the electors amused between the main acts.

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