The coalition has been markedly devoid of characters, which is somewhat of a problem for an impressionist. Each minor reshuffle has succeeded in replacing the few remaining recognisable personalities (William Hague, Ken Clarke) with the likes of Ed Davey, Stephen Crabb and Phil Hammond, whose colourful life has included the establishment of an electrode manufacturing plant in Maidenhead and a spell as consultant to the Government of Malawi.
With each wave of new appointments, the lifeblood of parliamentary debate – rousing and passionate speakers, persuasive and inspiring orators – ebbs away from the body politic, leaving us with safe, managerial bureaucrats who make speak-your-weight machines sound like Martin Luther King. The speeches are so forgettable, politicians sometimes forget them while they’re delivering them.
Listening to tapes of George Osborne or Jeremy Hunt is contra-indicated for anyone with even the mildest form of narcolepsy. But it’s not great for politics either, as it’s symptomatic of a dull, consensual centre-ground where ideology and vision have gone missing. No wonder the three most popular, or rather populist, political figures (south of the border, at least – viewers in Scotland have their own programmes) are Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Russell Brand.
Love them or hate them, they’re the exceptions to the rule: figures who demonstrate that in the kingdom of the bland, the one idea is king.
When the public loses interest in politicians, it’s easy for politicians to lose interest in the public. The gap grows wider, the disengagement greater. But programmes that send up politicians, lampoon them, parody them, are a healthy and vital part of the political process.
If people see their politicians on television, week in, week out, in a humorous context, they take in who they are and what they do. Spitting Image may not have brought down the Tory government (the Tories themselves managed that later) but it did get 12 million people watching sketches about Ken Baker, Norman Fowler and Leon Brittan.
The last time we did a satire show before the last election, I dressed up as William Hague to ambush George Osborne as he canvassed in his constituency. We showed voters pictures of the then shadow Tory Cabinet. No one recognised any of them.
“We’ll be a stealth government,” I said (in character); “People you’ve never heard of doing things you wouldn’t believe!” I was being sarcastic. It soon became all too true, as Andrew Lansley restructured the Health Service and Michael Gove reformed education, both so successfully that they were subsequently demoted.
For a time, satire seemed redundant, as MPs scrabbled to repay expenses claimed for their duck houses and tennis courts and tony Blair was appointed Middle East Peace Envoy. Real life was so much more ridiculous. There were even a few (but only a few) resignations, such as Andrew Mitchell over Plebgate, and Chris Huhne, the quickest to resign – only because he was doing nearly 70 when he was caught speeding and blamed his wife.
But hope is at hand. The general election is a little over four months away, and some of the colour and excitement will return to our politics, as it did in Scotland last year during the lively and engaging referendum campaign.
Already Al Murray has announced he’ll stand against Nigel Farage. Boris hopes to return to Westminster. And we’re back on the telly. Happy days!
Catch Coalition Report every Tuesday on BBC2 at 10pm