Monday, February 27, 2017

The wicked wit of the late Gerald Kaufman

I am not going to pretend that I was a fan of the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, who has died at the age of 86.

But on the principle of "Nihil Nisi Bonum" I will remember one good thing about him - his brilliant wit and incisive turn of phrase.

Twenty years after the event, and on a day when I definitely did not feel much like laughing, I recall that I was nevertheless reduced to fits of laughter by Kaufman's speech proposing the loyal address at the start of Tony Blair's government in 1997.

The speech is recorded for posterity by Hansard at

https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmhansrd/vo970514/debtext/70514-04.htm

but here is an extract:

Madam Speaker, this is the first speech that I have made from this side of the House for more than 18 years and it is my first speech as a Government Back Bencher. I shall therefore be unprecedentedly--and, quite possibly, unrepeatedly--loyal.

Indeed, let me dispel immediately any doubts that malicious people may have propagated: it is my firm intention to speak in favour of this Queen's Speech.
 
I first heard that I had been selected to move the motion when I received a telephone call on Monday afternoon. A portentously official-sounding voice said, in ominous tones,

"The Government Chief Whip would like to speak to you."

I was immediately struck with terror that I had violated the parliamentary Labour party's new and extremely stringent code of discipline. My mind went back guiltily to a general election campaign meeting last month during which I had been reckless enough to utter the word "socialism". Moreover, I had shared the platform with a trade union leader. I knew that I could not hope for leniency in the light of such transgressions. 

However, it turned out that my fears were groundless and that my right hon. Friend was inviting me to move the motion to which I am now speaking. I therefore cast around in my mind for some explanation for my being singled out in this way.

I want to make clear that in order to obtain this distinction, I did not send boxes of chocolates or bunches of flowers to either the Prime Minister or the Chief Whip; nor did I invite them out to dinner. Apart from anything else, on a Back Bencher's salary I cannot afford the prices at Granita. Nor have I ever said that there is "something of the night" about the Chief Whip--even if I have thought it. 

I recall that recently, during a broadcast on a Radio 4 programme appropriately called "Loose Ends", I announced myself to be a total sycophant of the Prime Minister. However, before preening myself too much, I do realise that under the iron heel of the Minister without Portfolio, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), total sycophancy must be regarded as a suspiciously lukewarm form of loyalty."


It was, of course, Kaufman who famously described Labour's 1983 election manifesto as

"The longest suicide note in history."

He was notoriously unhappy with the mismanagement of the Opera House at Covent Garden, and among his waspish interventions on the subject, which were credited with driving the CEO of the opera house to resign, he is usually assumed to have drafted the following lines from a report of the relevant Commons Select Committee about the Opera House:

"We would prefer to see the House run by a philistine with the requisite financial acumen than by the succession of opera and ballet lovers who have brought a great and valuable institution to its knees."

Sir Gerald was not the most popular of men even among his fellow Labour MPs. But his sense of humour will be missed.

Rest in Peace.

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