I love The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year Awards. On the face of it, they’re a great advertisement for just how broadminded and sophisticated the editors of this magazine are. We’re able to rise above the political fray and generously acknowledge MPs on both sides of the House, regardless of which party they belong to. But at the same time, it’s also a way of drawing attention to the fact that we Tories aren’t as parti pris as our lefty opponents. Unlike us, they’re far too bogged down in the petty bickering of daily politics to pay tribute to their enemies. And in this way we’re able to score a few cheap political points.
Having said that, I was slightly taken aback when Tristram Hunt won ‘Newcomer of the Year’. Surely this was taking the spirit of bipartisanship too far? Hunt is Michael Gove’s shadow. His job is to oppose the education reforms that nearly all of us at this magazine passionately support. Wasn’t it a bit like the American Police Officers Association giving a ‘Good Citizenship’ award to Al Capone?
My view of Hunt is that he’s essentially Tim Nice-But-Dim from Harry Enfield’s Television Programme. Yes, yes, he has a PhD in history, but he comes across as a bit out of his depth whenever he’s on Newsnight or the Today programme, a beat behind everyone else. When challenged, he’s quick to go on the defensive, as if he lacks intellectual confidence.
To my mind, these shortcomings have been obvious from his first few weeks in the job. He began by praising free schools, claiming he was going to put ‘rocket boosters’ under the policy, then 48 hours later described them as ‘a dangerous ideological experiment’. On Question Time, he blurted out the fact that he supported performance-related pay, only to backtrack furiously when he discovered the teaching unions opposed it. Earlier this week, he was humiliated in the House of Commons when he mistakenly contrasted the GCSEs the Education Secretary had done at Robert Gordon’s College with those taken by contemporary schoolchildren. Gove gently pointed out that, as a schoolboy in Scotland, he’d never studied for GCSEs, and suggested that Hunt might want to spend less time on history and more on geography.
I’ve leapt on these mistakes, gleefully drawing attention to them. But I now realise that this was a mistake and intelligences greater than my own have been at work in the decision to give him a Spectator award. Clearly, making the shadow education secretary ‘Newcomer of the Year’ is part of a fiendish Machiavellian plot to discredit him. The plan is to build him up as a prelude to bringing him crashing down. After all, it will be far more humiliating for Hunt if he establishes an early reputation as an agile parliamentary performer and then comes a cropper during the election campaign than if he’s written off as a duffer from day one.
In reality, of course, I don’t suppose any of these thoughts entered the heads of the Spectator judges. I expect they genuinely like Hunt and think his floppy-haired good looks will add a touch of glamour to Labour’s front bench — presumably why Ed Miliband gave him the education brief.
But his rapid promotion is a reminder that political careers are often parabolic, rising vertiginously and then falling just as steeply, and it makes sense to concentrate your fire on those at the top or on their way down rather than those on the way up. Stories about politicians only have traction if they fit the narrative that has grown up around them. If they run counter to that narrative, they tend to be ignored.
That’s why most of the grenades the Tories have lobbed at Ed Miliband in the last few weeks have missed their target. Political journalists only have a few narrative tropes in their bag of tricks, and one of them is ‘The Comeback Kid’ — the role currently being played by the leader of the opposition. He’s benefiting from pitifully low expectations.
So, ahem, let me add my warm congratulations to the dashing MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. His ‘Newcomer of the Year’ award is richly deserved, thanks to his thoughtful and intelligent contributions to the education debate. I expect we’ll hear great things from him in the years to come, just as we will Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves. These three young meteors are clearly destined for greatness.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.