Roger Lewis of The Times has a lot of good things to say about Patrick Kidd's new book...
Brexit, a catastrophe for the rest of us, has been a boon to the political sketchwriter, who hitherto was compelled to cook up jokes about legislation to protect hedgehogs, committees pondering the fluoridation of the water supply, and earnest debates regarding raising the legal age for buying fireworks and using sunbeds.
Suddenly, after the referendum in 2016, bigger issues were at stake — not how Westminster could unpick more than 40 years of European integration, but whether John Bercow could beat his personal record of spending 684 minutes in the Speaker’s chair without needing the lavatory. Patrick Kidd’s theory is ingenious. There must be a secret “feeding and filtration system” fitted under the green leather upholstery.
Kidd, sketchwriter for The Times from 2014 to 2019, clearly relishes what he calls parliament’s “cabaret hour”, especially the eccentric rituals, involving the Cap of Maintenance, the Loose Change of Necessity, the Cuppa of Relief, the Biro of Whimsy and the Notepads of Irreverence. He cherishes too the endangered fauna found in these crumbling, leaking neo-gothic buildings — “loons, thieving magpies, gannets, boobies, bustards, lots of spotted shags and a multitude of tits”.
The Weak are a Long Time in Politics is a gathering of, as it were, verbal Peter Brookes cartoons, a skewering of characters capable of unabashedly giving diametrically opposed answers in five minutes to the same important question.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, with his antique suits and snooty manner, is “MP for the 19th century”, his drawl putting Kidd in mind of “lemon curd on a crumpet”. Make no mistake, however, Rees-Mogg is as genial as a gangster performing dentistry with a pair of pliers.
Theresa May resembles “a lightly grilled camembert”, and Kidd describes her “stern, birdlike face and sophisticated fashion sense” — her habit of decking herself in coloured pebbles. In action she could be like “Margaret Thatcher without the warmth”, and her speaking skills were, apparently, nonexistent, like “a nervous librarian reading the phone book to a conference of narcoleptics”.
Keir Starmer, we are informed, “always looks perplexed and on the verge of tears, like Stan Laurel”, while David Davis looks like “an East End boxing promoter”. Zac Goldsmith speaks with all the passion of “a vicar in Waitrose who has discovered they’re all out of halloumi”. Nigel Farage barks his speeches like “an eel salesman in Billingsgate”.
Kidd, whose language is as joyously absurdist as Wodehouse’s, is sensitive to linguistic misuse. He can’t abide the ghastly Whitehall clichés that assail his ears day after day. Ukip may have been (in David Cameron’s words) “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, but Farage’s militaristic verbiage, as quoted by Kidd, is sinister: “We need to reform the columns of the People’s Army and get back in battle order.” They must be running out of black shirts in Jermyn Street.
Nor, at the other declamatory extreme, is Kidd taken in by the empty baroque rhetoric of Boris Johnson, the stupid person’s idea of a clever person. His speeches, despite the orotundity, seem to have been scribbled on an envelope a moment ago in the lift. Kidd, a Classics scholar, notices when Johnson gets his ancient mythology allusions muddled up. Without mercy he shows Johnson mixing bizarre metaphors about flying buttresses (“Yes, a buttress... supportive of the EU kirk but not particularly fussy about exactly how the masonry interlocks”), and he has no patience with Johnson’s obsession with silly photo opportunities: Boris eating pies, waving flags, driving lorries, “his chest thrust forward like a gorilla”.
The unexpected star turn of this collection of sketches, however, is Jeremy Corbyn. Kidd can’t get enough of this dreary, whining phenomenon, who is like one of those indestructible beetles who’ll crawl out of the rubble after a nuclear war. Kidd has fun with a ticket inspector asking a Labour flunkey whether Corbyn had a railcard, as if the Labour leader were “a catatonic patient in a geriatric ward”.
Corbyn is less interested in Britain’s woes than in “arranging rallies in aid of Peruvian basket-weavers”. He takes pictures of manhole covers as a hobby, owns an allotment (where he meditates on “the wonders of planting beans”) and makes rambling speeches, “fluffing every seventh word”. “I’ve just come from a bio-gas generating plant,” is the opener to one speech, “nailing the rhetoric like Churchill”.
Like all good satire, at bottom Kidd’s work is deeply serious. When the nation is “in greater need of talented leadership than at any point since the Second World War”, we have a leader of the opposition who achieved two Es at A level, who in debate turns winning positions into losing ones, and who is constitutionally “unable to press home an advantage”.
With Cameron, who resigned when the referendum result came through, we had an unhelpful patrician and complacent smugness. He was a man given to making “that trademark smirk when he thinks he has been clever”. Johnson, as foreign secretary, had wondered: “Where have they put Ceylon?” His attitude as we confront the Brexit brink is still: “What a lark leaving the EU would be!”
Kidd imagines the most rabid of Leavers would be happy to see the “blocking up of the Channel tunnel and the banning of the production of croissants”. That may be no exaggeration — I know of old folks’ home inmates who were Brexiteers because the Hungarian chef had made their food too spicy.
Kidd quotes, without mockery, Sir Nicholas Soames’s view that, instead of going to war, as in the past, the EU has ensured “freedom, security and prosperity” across the Continent. Britain is now being destroyed not by external enemies, such as Mr Hitler or Napoleon, but by mad internal stresses and schisms, egged on by politicians who muse: “Why can’t we have a system like that nice Mr Erdogan is after in Turkey?”
I predict Kidd’s masterly volume will be considered vastly more enjoyable, and insightful, than any of the dour official chronicles of our era, which academics, historians and commentators even now may be busy drafting.
The Weak are a Long Time in Politics: Sketches from the Brexit Neverendum by Patrick Kidd, Biteback, 349pp, £12.99
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