The characteristic I most admire in politicians? Petulance

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

Many negative qualities are ascribed to politicians — name-calling, absenteeism, drunkenness — but you rarely hear of my favourite political emotion: petulance, which has caused us so much public entertainment in the political arena and promises to cause so much more.

Think of Dominic Raab refusing to accept his demotion until he was made Deputy Prime Minister; the spat between Liz Truss and Dominic Raab over who gets to stay at Chevening; Angela Rayner’s scathing letter on Commons notepaper to a Brighton shoe shop after it failed to put a pair of £195 heels aside for her; the spectacular Starmer meltdown in February when Sir Keir went ‘puce’ and kept hissing at Boris Johnson ‘It’s not true, it’s not true!’ for all the world like a teenage girl denying rumours of sexual generosity.

For a man of principle, supposedly uninterested in personalities, Jeremy Corbyn was extraordinarily petulant — and his petulance wasn’t amusing, unlike many others. He sulked his entire way through the entire anti-Semitism scandal which poisoned Labour under his leadership, even apparently when listening to Luciana Berger and other female Jewish Labour MPs recount, many in tears while they did so, the vile abuse they’d received on social media from his supporters.

The most petulant politician of the 20th century was of course one of ours — Edward Heath. Delighted to be the prime minister who finally led us into our doomed union with the EU in 1973, he quickly lost his avuncular facade when, defeated at a second successive election in 1974, he was challenged for the leadership of the Tory party by Margaret Thatcher. Though the victorious Thatcher offered him any seat he wanted in the shadow cabinet — an unusual and gracious gesture — he declined, in favour of dedicating the last 30 years of his life to what became known in political circles as ‘the Incredible Sulk’. His petulance and misogyny (while a student, he had declared in the Oxford Union that ‘Women have no original contribution to make to our debates’) grew to obsessive proportions. His ceaseless pro-EU speeches and essays were a thinly veiled vendetta against Mrs Thatcher, specifically her more sceptical attitude to Brussels. But the low point in his bitterness probably occurred when he was criticised for visiting Saddam Hussein, who was generally agreed to be evil, and Heath replied: ‘It all depends what you mean by evil. She, after all, is an evil woman.’ He didn’t have to name the object of his ire.

Thatcher herself was not petulant. Despite her sometimes comical assumed accent, with its echo of Hyacinth ‘Bouquet’, she was probably one of the most psychologically straightforward leaders we’ve seen. The fact that she had had to fight so hard to become the first female prime minister meant that she had no sense of entitlement — an essential soil in which petulance grows, often seen embarrassingly in the younger Prince Charles and now in Prince Harry. Mrs Thatcher was so guarded in her responses that the element of spontaneity required for sulking was lacking, and she was not easily hurt, another prerequisite for petulance. ‘I always cheer up immensely,’ she said, ‘if an attack is particularly wounding, because if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.’

But she certainly knew how to pick them. Who can forget her defence secretary John Nott (after announcing that he would not stand in the next election and being asked quite reasonably by Robin Day whether he was ‘a here-today and, if I may say so, gone-tomorrow politician’) tearing off his microphone, calling the interview ‘ridiculous’ and flouncing offstage?

Then there was the appalling David Mellor, Mrs Thatcher’s youngest minister at 32, moving rapidly up through the ranks. In 2010, it was reported that he had called a chef ‘a fat bastard’ and allegedly told him he should ‘do his £10-an-hour job somewhere else’. In 2014, newspapers reported that Mellor had been secretly recorded by a taxi driver, saying ‘You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?’, before giving the cabbie a high-handed lecture over which was the best route to his destination. Mellor later stated that it was the driver’s fault for provoking him. Petulant people never ‘own’ their behaviour.

But of all Mrs Thatcher’s merry men, surely the Sultan of Sulk was Michael Heseltine. His narcissism, expressed so shamelessly in his leonine mane, did not take kindly to snubs real or imagined. In 1976 he committed the absolute clincher of whether one is in a top-notch parliamentary pet: grabbing the mace, the ultimate symbol of democracy’s authority, and brandishing it at a group of Labour MPs mockingly singing ‘The Red Flag’ after a vote unexpectedly went their way.

When Labour finally got back into power, Tony Blair wasn’t big on petulance, but his backing singers — Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson —more than made up for it. According to Tom Bower’s biography of Brown, Mandelson ‘frequently screamed’ down the phone to Brown: ‘I love you, but I can destroy you!’ This is the point where petulance meets psychosis. Add the loose cannon that is Alastair Campbell, and daily proceedings in Downing Street must have resembled a cross between a Hollywood roasting and the last day of term at St Trinian’s.

Petulance is generally amusing, but combined with the level of rage contained within Gordon Brown, it must have been genuinely startling for his staff — as if Heathcliff had mislaid his mobile.

David Cameron and Theresa May weren’t sulkers, but they ushered in the era which would see the greatest show of mass political petulance ever. Yes, our old mate Brexit, and the reaction of the beaten Remainers — which I have called the Big Sulk (La Grande Boude) and which has been going on ever since We the People refused to vote the way our betters told us to. The eccentric Brighton MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle and a group of similarly fanatical pro-EU MPs protested on Westminster Bridge under the banner ‘Love Socialism Hate Brexit’, going so far as to light red flares within spitting distance of parliament: one of the few acts of political petulance which have actually attracted the attention of the police.

When Boris gets back from Marbella, and starts being heckled for having awarded himself extra hols, I’m looking forward to some proper old-fashioned pique. Such as when the late, great Labour MP Eric Heffer stormed off from a debate in high dudgeon — only to promptly walk into a broom cupboard.

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