‘You know, if becoming an MP has taught me one thing it’s respect, admiration for political opponents,’ tweeted Louise Mensch, the Tory MP for Corby, last week. ‘My Labour colleagues best people ever.’ It’s ironic that she should have vouchsafed these thoughts in a tweet, because it is Twitter that is fast destroying whatever respect or admiration one might once have felt for politicians, by revealing the sheer bathos of so many of their lives.
There is a place for tweeting in politics, to make short, rapid-response — albeit usually populist — points; William Hague tweeted with some effect during the Libyan crisis, for example. Were he alive today, Winston Churchill would have millions of followers for his pithy thoughts and crushing rejoinders on Twitter. Yet such genuine political activity is a world away from what scores of MPs use Twitter for, which can be broken down into six main categories.
The first is to share details of their travel schedules that would be boring even if one were their spouse. ‘On platform waiting for Euston train,’ the Welsh minister David Jones (Con, Clwyd West) tells us. ‘Cardiff train just pulled in. Amazing number of stops on the route.’ In another tweet he states: ‘iPad battery level down to 4%. Thank heaven I’ve got as far as Rhyl’. ‘‘Nooo there are no taxis!!’ tweets Andrew Percy (Con, Brigg & Goole) ‘Sod it! I’m walking to my village. I’m fat and need the exercise. I may be some time.’ Jamie Reed (Lab, Copeland) thinks people might be interested that he is ‘On a train. With a salad. Without a fork. Is there an app for that?’ Meanwhile Rory Stewart (Con, Penrith) thinks we’ll want to know that he has been ‘Walking up the fellside in black shoes from the Preston train, sheep scattering in darkness, not sure about the squelching under my feet.’
Then there are the cringe-making attempts of MPs to seem like men and women of the people. David Jones again: ‘I’d go so far as to say that pizza is the ultimate fast food — even better than hamburger.’ Or Tom Watson (Lab, West Bromwich East): ‘Today in the Watson parliamentary office we are listening to Dire Straits.’ Or shadow defence minister Jim Murphy (Lab, East Renfrewshire) saying that although he was canvassing for Ken Livingstone, ‘hope to finish in time for Bayern v Real game’. Meanwhile, Tom Harris (Lab, Glasgow South) is ‘About to watch Genesis tribute band, The Musical Box, perform the whole of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Wish I’d brought my combat jacket. But at least I’m wearing my jeans with the crease down the middle.’ Angus MacNeil (SNP, Western Isles) posted a picture of himself with Engelbert Humperdinck: ‘Meself and Engelbert... good luck in Eurovision I said.’ Domestic pets are also a staple subject of parliamentary tweeting. ‘If your cat lies on your legs & starts licking himself vigorously,’ shadow attorney general Emily Thornbury, (Lab, Islington South) informs us, ‘it’s like being shaken awake.’
A worse use to which MPs put Twitter is to try to tell jokes. Decide for yourself how close to the sublime Disraelian parliamentary tradition of wit are the following. Michael Dugher, Ed Miliband’s PPS, writes: ‘Kids in bed. Chicken in the oven. Was careful not to muddle the two up.’ Steve Rotheram (Lab, Liverpool Walton): ‘On the train on the way back to Liverpool, with a “Virgin” apple, so it’s not been a fruitless day.’ Jamie Reed again: ‘Best “Thick of It” insult? Difficult. “As useless as a marzipan dildo” is good.’ Clearly, no one told Chris Heaton-Harris (Con, Daventry) that puns when written down only ever elicit groans, hence: ‘Archaeologists have just discovered an ancient Egyptian ruler embalmed in chocolate. Apparently it was Pharoah Rocher’ and ‘I hear that Tony Blair is a big fan of Scrabble. It’s the only time he’s found WMD in a rack ...’
Being MPs, self-pity is never far from the surface. Daniel Byles (Con, North Warwickshire) complains that he’s ‘About to leave the office after another long day’ to constituents who don’t get four months holiday a year like him. ‘My hair today went a bit Portillo,’ laments Gavin Shuker (Lab, Luton South). ‘Putting it down to the damp weather and lack of sleep.’ David Jones moans that he’s ‘Back at flat and find the boiler has packed in. Great.’ Poor Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) has ‘Been doing emails for hours and hours ...currently to the sound of the Chi-Lites. You Don’t Have to Go, Stoned Out of My Mind, classics.’ Nonetheless, for sheer oversharing, it’s hard to beat Tracey Crouch (Con, Chatham & Aylesford) for telling us that she was ‘Consuming fizzy pop & carbs after chairing DCMS platform session this pm. Was my first ever conference speech. Didn’t vomit on stage = bonus!’
Then there are the MPs who are under the illusion that we are interested in their views on popular culture. Thus, shadow chancellor Ed Balls had ‘Just been to see War Horse at Castleford Multiplex — it’s good, but not sure it’s brilliant.. quite stagey.’ And of X-Factor: ‘No tears tonight — Misha B is through... very tough for Janet... but the right decision.’ Jamie Reed believes: ‘Masterchef Australia isn’t just weird, it’s borderline perverted... Nor will I be watching “Strictly”.’
‘I’m guessing that doing the #Circle-LinePubCrawl for my forthcoming 30th birthday would send “all the wrong messages”,’ says Gavin Shuker, asking ‘What to do?’ The answer seems to be continuing to send tweets such as ‘Manflu update: it’s now day five’ and ‘Home late. No cat food. Lucky Ftse gets a tin of sardines in tomato sauce that I’d been saving for a rainy day.’ He also shared the news that ‘My researcher didn’t know what @popbitch was. #dispair’. One must despair of an MP who can’t spell ‘despair’, let alone who calls his cat ‘Ftse’.
Twitter tells us how much Stella Creasy (Lab, Walthamstow) likes The Cure and David Bowie, how Ben Gummer (Con, Ipswich) is helping do up his brother’s new flat, how Tom Watson spilt his dinner down his tie, how fast John Woodcock MP (Lab, Barrow & Furness) can bicycle in 30 seconds, how Tim Loughton is younger than his 50-year-old wife, how Toby Perkins (Lab, Chesterfield) took his daughter to Wacky Warehouse for an hour one Sunday, how Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) once wore the same tie as Speaker Bercow, and how Meg Hillier (Lab, Hackney South & Shoreditch) was ‘Comforted by the mountain of bolognese I left in freezer for kids. Should last 2 months.’ Last October MPs voted to continue to be allowed to tweet this banal, self-obsessed tripe from the historic, dignified chamber of the House of Commons during debates.
‘It is the highest and most legitimate pride of an Englishman to have the letters MP written after his name,’ wrote Anthony Trollope in Can You Forgive Her? ‘No selection from the alphabet, no doctorship, no fellowship, be it of ever so learned or royal a society, no knightship — not though it be of the Garter — confers so fair an honour.’ Of course he didn’t live in an age when MPs thought it seemly to make public pronouncements about pub crawls and marzipan dildos.