Derek Draper’s Comedy Masterclass

I suppose – as always – that Armando Iannucci got there long before I did.

His Friday Night Armistice was never a huge ratings hit but I watched it semi-religiously for most of 1997. I was 17, was just beginning to understand the British political landscape properly, and the Thatcher/Major government was playing out its last few sordid months. It made for great TV: there was Mellor and his sexual deviance; Neil Hamilton, quickly gathering a comedy reputation (in brown paper bags, mostly) at the heart of the Tories’ sleaze-riddled spectacle; poor Major cutting a tragic-comic figure in his failure to handle a fractured party. Iannucci and co were never short of material because the government were such a bunch of incompetent, sniping, grasping buffoons. I was inspired.

And then there was the Labour Party. Blair was young and dynamic and promised to be ‘whiter than white’; Brown was intelligent, principled, sensible; Robin Cook had ripped the Tories to bits in the chamber over Arms to Iraq and looked about to be a genuinely decent Foreign Secretary…

And on the night of May 1st 2007, while Dimbleby and co. were on BBC1 analysing Labour’s landslide in their straight, dry election night way, BBC2 was given over to Armando Iannucci to present The Election Night Armistice. I don’t remember that much about most of the show. I remember it was brilliant. The bit that stuck in my memory, though, was a section where they got ‘spin doctors’ from the major parties and asked them to try and put a positive spin on ridiculously bad quotes. And one of those was a young-ish guy called Derek Draper.

Draper was remarkably impressive; in fact I think he won the little ‘spin’ competition that the Armistice team held. He was charming and witty, and although he seemed like a little bit of a tool, he was a tool with his heart in the right place: he was the representative of the new government that were coming to save us from the sniping and sleaze of the old politics. I liked him.

This week, Draper – several scandals later, the editor of the LabourList blog – was revealed as the recipient of those emails that Gordon Brown’s press guy Damian McBride wrote discussing a number of possible smears of Tory shadow ministers. I’ve read his responses to the whole thing blowing up and he’s clearly the same guy I watched 11 years ago, trying to make a bad situation look better. But he’s obviously still a tool.

His overall motives, I think, are decent: he was fed up of the fact that politics in the blogosphere is dominated by right-wing gossip and rumour-mongering and wanted to change it.

But he forgot that there’s a reason why that kind of nasty politics is done by Tories, and that’s because they are supposed to be the nasty, sleazy, sniping ones. And he – and McBride, of course – are both massive tools because Labour are supposed to be, in the public’s perception, the ‘good guys’; when the Labour party stoop to the level that we expect of Tories, then it is always going to be big news.

The traditional perception of the floating voter in Britain is generally that the Tories are unpleasant and sleazy, but competent; and Labour are decent and principled but a bit rubbish at governing. The reason Labour won by a landslide in 1997 was because, in addition to being principled, they managed to appear more competent than the Tories. They don’t look competent anymore (despite Brown’s handling of the banking crisis); but the one thing they still had was some kind of shambolic decency – they were going to keep the debate about policy, not personality etc.

And now Draper and McBride have blown that. All the Tories have to do now is look suitably offended and shocked and their job is done.

What makes it all so tragic, so heartbreakingly tragic is that it was all there, all the ingredients of this, from the very beginning. And Armando Iannucci saw it long before I did; when Iannucci met Draper on election night back in 1997, he knew that he was meeting what the Labour party had really become – a party so obsessed with its image and making things look good that it was never going to be able to do a really good job of governing.

So, tomorrow, ‘In The Loop’ – Iannucci’s film about government spin and underhanded, spiteful, sniping politics – is out and it looks like it’s going to be brilliant. And perhaps Derek Draper will watch it, and recognise what a complete tool he always was.

And that’s why I would only ever be a comedian and not a politician; I knew it even during that inspirational election night in 1997, when in my youthful naïveté I felt like Blair was going to fix everything. And I certainly know it now.

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