Britain’s Contenders Have a Habit of Botching It

Britain’s Contenders Have a Habit of Botching It

Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, flashes his signature “V for Victory” in 1942.

SourceThomas D. McAvoy/Getty

Why you should care

Because the unexpected often happens when it’s all to play for. 

Just weeks after Germany’s surrender in World War II, Britain’s victorious leader, Winston Churchill, was hoping to be reelected his country’s prime minister in the summer of 1945. Keen to take the fight to Labour opponents, both Churchill and his supporters imagined his opening campaign speech would reinforce his status as a national hero. What happened next, however, would backfire badly.

He controversially chose to draw parallels with the fallen German regime, claiming Labour would require “some form of Gestapo” to force through their policies. With the country still recovering from a very real Nazi threat, Churchill’s tactics were quickly seized upon by critics as both sensationalist and offensive. He would go on to suffer a crushing defeat, with his ill-judged words regarded as the defining moment of a failed election strategy.

Churchill is one of many leading British political figures to have blundered on the campaign trail. And as the country again prepares to vote on June 8, the risks are ever-present. Take former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who never lived down his appearance at a Sheffield rally in 1992. Confident victory was on the horizon, but the triumphant-sounding Welshman put in a cringe-worthy performance in front of jubilant supporters, repeatedly shouting in a fake American accent, “We’re all right!” Kinnock, it turned out, was not “all right” — he lost to Conservative rival John Major.

The sight of the prime minister, head in hands, listening to that secret recording was the image of his election campaign.

Paul Osbourne, political commentator

Left with no choice but to take to the streets, encounters between politicians and the public can predictably prove hazardous. Just ask former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who, following an awkward encounter with lifelong party supporter Gillian Duffy in 2010, escaped to his car ready to let off steam. Unluckily for Brown, he forgot he was still wired up to a Sky News microphone as he was complaining and calling pensioner Duffy a “bigoted woman.” Just minutes later, his comments were all over the airwaves. “The sight of the prime minister, head in hands, listening to that secret recording as it was played out on national radio was the image of his election campaign,” recalls London-based political commentator Paul Osbourne. He never recovered, and Labour’s time in power was over after 13 years.

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Brown’s longtime Labour colleague, had a more controversial way of dealing with hostile voters. During a visit to the Welsh town of Rhyl in 2001, he was struck at close range by an egg thrown by local farm worker Craig Evans, prompting Prescott to punch Evans in retaliation. “The deputy prime minister assaulting a member of the public, even one who slapped an egg on him, was at one level mind-boggling and grave … at another, it was mind-boggling and comic,” Prescott’s boss, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, later wrote in his 2010 memoir.

Elaborate publicity stunts, meanwhile, can inevitably backfire. Labour leader Ed Miliband’s unveiling of the so-called “EdStone” — a biblical-looking concrete slab containing election pledges — met with derision in 2015. Miliband optimistically pledged to have the 8-foot object installed near his office if he became prime minister. Neither the politician nor his EdStone ever made it to 10 Downing Street. Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe’s decision to travel by hovercraft during the 1974 campaign also proved problematic. It was last seen breaking down on a Devon beach, and Thorpe was nearly swept out to sea.

Election time traditionally marks the arrival of willing celebrities ready to champion the cause of their politician and party of choice. While the effectiveness of showbiz interventions is doubted by many, none in Britain are likely to have proved more controversial than popular comedian Kenny Everett’s appearance at a Conservative rally in 1983. “Let’s bomb Russia!” he announced to the roaring approval of the crowd, causing outrage nationwide. Everett, who died in 1995, was never allowed to forget it. Friend and comedy writer Barry Cryer later recalled how the moment “haunted him.”

Relentless media scrutiny on the campaign trail can take its toll. While flustered Green Party leader Natalie Bennett’s housing policy fell apart during a disastrous interview in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron was left red-faced when he bizarrely managed to forget which soccer team he supported. Having long claimed to have been a fan of Midlands-based Aston Villa, he confusingly told a bemused audience his allegiance lay with London rivals West Ham. Cameron blamed “brain fade,” but the error confirmed suspicions he’d never been a genuine follower of the sport in the first place. Even fresher in the memory is the fate suffered by senior Labour politician Diane Abbott during the latest 2017 campaign. She was a target for mockery after it became painfully clear she had no idea how to fund a pledge for 10,000 extra police. By Abbott’s botched calculations, new officers could expect to earn less than $40 a year — the gaffe made endless rounds on comedy news shows.

So, as Britons once again prepare to perform their democratic duty, the misfortune suffered along the way by those chasing their support can prove anything from plain embarrassing to career-ending. An election without a leading politician disastrously misjudging the public mood, or simply making a fool of him or herself, would be a rare thing indeed. Voters really wouldn’t want it any other way.

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