Austin Boris: the motivation of maverick politicians

GMB leader Paul Kenny has laid down a challenge to Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. ‘If [you] cannot make any spending commitments to give dignity to our people in retirement in this country, then why did you come into politics in the first place?’ he said in a speech to his union’s conference.

All too many people have a low view of elected politicians’ motivations. Kenny’s challenge, on the other hand is pretty inspiring. It reminds us of politics as a noble profession that you enter in order to improve others’ lives.

So it was with some sadness that I noticed a Daily Mail headline referring to veteran MP Austin Mitchell as ‘Labour’s splendidly maverick MP’. Of course, the Mail were lapping up Mitchell’s comments on his party colleagues and hoping they would cause maximum embarrassment for the Opposition front bench. But if you’re a Labour politician and the Mail subs refer to you as ‘splendid’ then you know that they don’t see you as a threat any more. They can pretend to like you (as long as you keep the off-message comments coming) because they aren’t scared. ‘Splendidly maverick’ means you’re on your way out. (Mind you, if you got to the end of the Mail‘s characteristically-long headline you’d have found that out too.) At the end of his interview with Dacre’s finest, Mitchell admits: ‘I don’t think I’ve achieved all that much. The causes I’ve fought for…have not materialised.’ That’s consistent with his miners’ strike experience, previously discussed.

What must it be like to serve in your national legislature for 37 years and for your finest professional moment to come, not from there, but for your anchoring role on regional TV news? As presenter of Yorkshire TV’s Calendar, Mitchell famously interviewed Brian Clough as he clocked in and then out of the Leeds manager’s job. The latter interview, which included Clough head-to-head with Don Revie, is classic TV.

Politics isn’t so far from showbusiness. Austin Mitchell isn’t the only former TV presenter in the Commons. (And of course some Parliamentarians, like Matthew Parris and Robert Kilroy-Silk have gone the other way.) None has got terribly far – though Esther McVey, Tristram Hunt and Gloria De Piero are all on the up. But then there is the man who is supposedly Britain’s favourite maverick politician: the Mayor of London.

As we’ve noted before here at the cafe, Boris Johnson’s record at City Hall is not particularly impressive. Yet, today, was Johnson trying to thrash out a deal between protesting cabbies, Transport for London and smartphone app Uber? He was not. Instead he was taking on another Tory leadership rival, just while she may be thought to be wounded after an altercation with a third rival, Michael Gove. It’s the strongest sign in a while that Johnson does not intend to be only remembered for his ‘amusing’ zip wire incident or his expensive bus. He intends to be prime minister and so in the meantime it is incumbent on us all to keep being Paul Kenny and to ask him, wherever possible, why he came into politics.



  1. Hey Klaus. I don’t think it matters whether Mitchell thinks that edition of Calendar was his finest moment. We all have differing criteria about what makes greatness. But in a sense we agree: I’m sure he would rather have ridden the zeitgeist as someone shaping the news rather than as a newsman. It isn’t his fault that his time on the Labour front bench coincided with the high point of Thatcherism. As to his real contribution, again, that’s a matter for debate. Jay Leno pretty much saved his career with the six words to Hugh Grant: ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ Austin Mitchell didn’t impose himself on the situation, but the situation didn’t require it.

  2. Has Mitchell said the Revie interview was his finest professional moment? If not, then I wonder as to the strength of your assertion that it is. Mitchell just happened to be in the anchor’s chair, as I recall it. There’s not much in the way of journalism in what he did, no great acts of inquisition, nor any revealing ‘opening up’ of his subject. He was just in the right place at the right time. Unlike his tenure as the MP for Grimsby during eighteen years of Conservative government; that period being, one might guess, the prime years of his working life.

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