The best PM we’ll never have

Parliament is in disarray; the government is seething. We need new leadership. Plenty of familiar names have been thrown about; but what if, as in the US, any old reality TV star could be catapulted to the top job? If we were to ditch the politicians, who else could occupy No 10? We asked our regulars – and some special guests – for their nominations.


Jeremy Clarkson
Nominated by James Kirkup, Director of The Social Market Foundation

The Liberal Democrats are looking for a replacement for Vince Cable. The Independent Group has made Chuka Umunna its ‘chief spokesman’ but isn’t yet a full political party. Centrism needs a leader.

That leader should be Jeremy Clarkson. Yes, Jeremy Clarkson. Bear with me.

I am a centrist. We like political compromise and policy based on evidence, not ideology: just do ‘what works’ and leave philosophy to philosophers. We haven’t had the best time of late.

One reason is that centrists tend to be like me: metropolitan wonks who focus too much on the detail of policy and not enough on how voters will see that policy.  I spent years writing clever columns about the merits of a liberal immigration policy; in 2017, I thought (and still think) the ‘dementia tax’ was a good policy, because it’s better to tax the houses of asset-rich pensioners than the incomes of asset-poor workers. Smart, eh?

Then there’s Brexit, which brings me to Clarkson.

Guess how he voted in the referendum? What he thinks about leaving? He’s a Remainer: a treacherous, bleating, Britain-hating public schoolboy millionaire liberal Remainer, who thinks Brexit is a “clusterfuck”. He’s basically David Cameron, but less fat and with slightly better jeans.

And guess what? It doesn’t matter. He’s still Jeremy Clarkson, the bloke’s bloke, the bloke with the cars and the crap jokes and the stupid comments about foreigners and the bad jeans.

And he’s got exactly what centrism needs: an understanding of – and a love for – the stuff that millions of ‘ordinary’ voters are interested in.

Last month, when Theresa May was pictured awkwardly trying to play pool with her Italian counterpart, Clarkson had a Twitter-rant that sums up why centrism needs him:

I’m shit at pool. But I know how to hold the cue at least. What I cannot understand is how you can be the prime minister when you don’t. Seriously, how can you get to the age of 62 without EVER playing a single game of pool? It’s impossible. 

How can you know what normal people think if you’ve never played pool?

The last thing centrists need is more smart policy and more clever people: we’ve got that covered.  We need leaders you could go down the pub and have a laugh with – and who would be down the pub having a laugh even if they didn’t want your vote, because that’s what they like doing. Because that’s what people do. #JC4PM

 

Howard Jacobson
Nominated by Tanya Gold

When regarding the agonies of Brexit, I dream, idly, of a clever Prime Minister. George Osborne may fantasise that I am talking about him. I am not. I am talking about Benjamin Disraeli, who wrote novels, split the Tory Party, re-established it with one nation Conservatism – still a fantasy that endures – passed reforming legislation and still made good jokes. For instance this on William Gladstone: “He has not one single redeeming defect”. Or this: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

Was the kindness, the imagination, and the wit of the novelist the key to Disraeli’s brilliance? I don’t know, but sometimes I fantasise that Howard Jacobson is prime minister. He wouldn’t do it, of course, not being a f*cking inadequate, but I cannot get the idea from my brain, especially when watching the dishonest idiots on BBC Parliament.

I dream that he would actually think, deeply, about things, and act with one eye on history, and the other on Count Tolstoy. He hates social media, which is right; I imagine he is sound on climate change, also right; he would re-open libraries, and make wonderful speeches. I wonder if the subjects of Elizabeth I felt the same way as I would under a Jacobson premiership: soothed, because their leader was that rare thing in politics – not a fool.


Tracey Emin
Nominated by Bidisha, writer, broadcaster and film-maker

Having followed her varied, beautiful and highly skilled work for decades now, I have a lot of respect for the artist Tracey Emin and would love to see what she’d do with the top job.

I interviewed her for Radio 4 about a decade ago and she was thoughtful and gentle, very cultured and with a naturally international mindset. She combines many qualities and has overcome many challenges, which I think would garner people’s respect, and also speaks to an inner strength and steady, laudable ambition.

As a former Young British Artist she has come through the New Labour era of the financial boom and Cool Britannia’s soaring cultural capital. Indeed, that period made her rich and famous. However, her early years were humble and marked by family issues (her philandering father had an entire other family secreted away), lack of opportunity and multiple instances of rape and sexual violence.

She has fought her way up from modest beginnings, gender violence, lack of opportunity and the low expectations of others to emerge as a great artist with a wide-ranging body of art, self-knowledge, maturity and self-belief. She has withstood howls of derision from many people, who believe that what she creates is not art, to emerge as a tough, experienced woman who is sure of her gifts and determined to carve her place in the world.

I respect those qualities in a leader.

 

Jurgen Klopp
Nominated by James Bloodworth – author and journalist

Westminster needs more people with “helping syndrome”, the epithet coined by the Liverpool FC manager Jurgen Klopp to describe himself.

As a Liverpool supporter, I’m obviously biased. But the 51-year-old German exudes a warmth and intelligence that is sorely lacking in our politics at the present time.

I haven’t chosen Klopp solely on the basis of his sporting affiliations or personal magnetism, however. His political views chime with my own: Klopps is on the Left without being a fanatic. He talks in terms of first principles rather than ideological dogma.

“I’m on the Left, of course,” Jürgen Klopp tells the journalist Raphael Honigstein in Klopp: Bring the Noise, his book on the Liverpool manager. “More Left than middle. I believe in the welfare state. I’m not privately insured. I would never vote for a party because they promised to lower the top tax rate,” Klopp adds.

Moreover, Klopp is a pro-European who emits none of the intellectual snobbery that seems to animate some of his fellow Remainers. Klopp told the Guardian in 2018 that he didn’t believe the English had become an inward-looking people post-Brexit. “I don’t see it,” Klopp told the paper.

Charisma, intelligence, as well as respect and civility towards one’s political opponents. Westminster could do with its own Jurgen Klopp.


Martina Navratilova

Nominated by Julie Bindel, journalist and feminist campaigner

Martina Navratilova, one of the finest sportspeople in the world, is brave, principled, and the antithesis of hypocrisy. In other words, nothing like a politician.

I first saw Martina on TV at Wimbledon in 1976. I was 14 years old, and crippled with self-hatred and shame for being a lesbian. Martina did not feminise her appearance, unlike other female tennis players, and was proud of her muscles. I had her clocked as a feminist, and suspected she was a lesbian long before she came out in 1981.

In 2010, I had the honour of interviewing Martina, shortly after she revealed she had breast cancer. As ever, Martina had her eye on the bigger picture, and used her diagnosis to encourage women to look out for warning signs.

More recently, Martina has spoken out about the unfairness of male-bodied trans-women competing against natal women in sport. Martina does not have a bigoted bone in her body, but even so, she was immediately accused of ‘transphobia’. But Martina did not back down, and continued to take a principled stand on this issue.

When she came out as a lesbian, Martina lost every single one of her sponsors; today, she is facing bullying and unjust criticism. But Martina takes it on the chin, because you can’t keep a good woman down. If Martina were our Prime Minister, the country would not be in the mess it is today.

 

Alexei Sayle
Nominated by Matthew Norman, political satirist and columnist 

The moment Alexei Sayle established himself as one of the great lost leaders came on Question Time a few years ago. An audience member raised a matter of typically inexpressable tedium, and for the only time in the borefest’s history, a panellist gave the perfect response. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “Ask someone else.”

Those who recall such national humiliations as Tony Blair’s musings on the murder trial of Deidre from Coronation Street would appreciate a PM under no compulsion to have an opinion about everything, and brazenly unconcerned about pandering.

Sayle’s claims extend beyond that. He wouldn’t remotely want the job, which should of course be a formal prerequisite for having it. If he did, he’d  acknowledge Britain’s diminished status by cancelling Trident, and use an alarmingly capacious knowledge of military hardware to remodel the armed forces in keeping with the needs of this geopolitical age rather than the one that ended in 1990.

His rage, intelligence and hilarious deployment of distinctly unparliamentary language would reignite public interest in politics to levels unseen since he was remoulding the country’s comic sensibilities in the early 1980s.

He would also be the first PM since Churchill with genuine literary talent. Alongside his fiction, he has published two glorious volumes of memoirs (Stalin Ate My Homework, and Thatcher Stole My Trousers). Who wouldn’t give one kidney at least for a  third, Bercow Kissed My Ringpiece, covering the Downing Street years?


Ronald Blythe

Nominated by Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie

At 96, Ronald Blythe remains our greatest living expert on the British countryside.

Fifty years ago, he wrote his masterpiece, Akenfield – Portrait of an English Village.

He invented the name Akenfield for his fictional Suffolk village. But his recorded interviews with locals – from teenagers to retired farmhands in their 80s – gave a crystal-clear, undeniably true picture of the brutal horrors of country life in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

I interviewed him this year and, half a century on, he remains a supreme listener – a quality distinctly lacking in Parliament.

Talk to an MP and they usually talk at you and avoid asking questions. I was amazed, at the Oldie Literary Lunch at the Ilkley Literary Festival last year, to see Alan Johnson, another candidate for the best Prime Minister we will never have, ask questions – and keep on asking them – of his neighbour at lunch before giving his speech.

How do you ever learn anything if you don’t ask questions and don’t listen; and don’t read books – another thing MPs aren’t much cop at?

Blythe doesn’t just read constantly; he writes, too – over 30 books so far, and he’s planning on writing more.

When I interviewed him, he modestly said, “I was a listener and a looker.”

He still is.


Claire Tomalin

Nominated by Deborah Orr, journalist

Many former journalists go into politics. That’s not surprising. The two disciplines often attract people with similar interests and passions. The journalists who used to be editors – who have experience of managing a team, juggling a mix of information and priorities, maintaining a vision of how everything fits together – are better placed than the mere writers to make the transition.

I’d never actually wish that, after she resigned as literary editor of the Sunday Times, Claire Tomalin had become a politician – her career as a biographer has been too valuable, too dazzling for that. But Tomalin would have made a superlative prime minister. Anyone familiar with her writing is aware of its remarkable intelligence – an intelligence leavened with the empathy that enables her to understand how human talents and human flaws tend to coalesce to make a unique, sometimes dark, sort of creativity or genius. No one could doubt that she has the skill with words to communicate the original thoughts and ideas that her prose writhes with.

But Tomalin’s resilience is stunning too. She has achieved so much. Becoming the preeminent biographer of your generation, having been born a woman in 1933, takes stamina. To do this while your personal life is marked by tragedy after tragedy – pain and loss that most of us don’t even experience once – well, Tomalin is a human among humans. Claire – you’re only 85. It’s not too late.

 

Malorie Blackman
Nominated by YA novelist, Lisa Williamson

The next generation deserves a leader who listens to and values their opinions. For the past three decades, Malorie Blackman OBE has done just that. Since publishing her first novel in 1990, she has given a voice to under-represented children and young adults in her fiction, television writing and tireless campaigning.

In a Young Adult sector dominated by white authors and publishers, Blackman’s impact has been revolutionary. Some of her books, like the wildly successful dystopian Noughts and Crosses seriestackle racism head on, while others feature black children simply getting on with their everyday lives or having the sorts of adventures previously reserved for white readers. It’s a deceptively simple yet powerful approach that has changed the landscape of children’s literature.

The 2013-15 Children’s Laureate uses her platform to promote reading for pleasure, to highlight opportunities in the creative industries for young people of all backgrounds, and encourage and empower them to write their own stories. Meanwhile her words continue to reflect issues facing young people in the UK today – just look at the emotional response her award-winning Rosa Parks episode of Dr Who spurred last year: it indicates the power of her work.

I doubt Malorie would want to touch the PM role with a bargepole, but, my gosh, wouldn’t it be fabulous if someone who put the well-being of our children first was in charge for once? They’d certainly get my vote.


Louise Casey

Nominated by LBC presenter Iain Dale

Great prime ministers have visions. They know what they want to achieve and they understand the measures necessary to achieve it. They lead from the front. They can articulate their vision to enable voters to buy into and support it. They don’t shy away from controversy or confrontation. They lead public opinion, they don’t follow it.

Step forward Dame Louise Casey. Known as the most untypical of civil servants she first came to the public’s notice as the Blair government’s Homelessness Czar. She became the driving force to combat Anti-Social Behaviour and headed the Respect Task Force before being appointed Victims Commissioner. She then took on the Troubled Families initiative and wrote a report into the Rotherham Grooming scandal. In each of those jobs she shook up the system, adopting the maxim that in order to create an omelette you have to crack a few eggs.

Louise Casey eschews party politics, but she is a natural born leader. She doesn’t stand for any nonsense, and is an original thinker. I’d say that’s just what the country needs as we look for a replacement for Theresa May. What a shame she isn’t in parliament.


Katharine Birbalsingh

Nominated by Peter Franklin

Michaela Community School is a state secondary school in the London borough of Brent. About a fifth of its pupils qualify for free school meals and almost half speak English as a second language. It has also been rated by Ofsted inspectors as outstanding in all categories. Oh, and the school opened its doors just five years ago.

Michaela’s founding Headmistress is Katharine Birbalsingh – the inspirational leader of a remarkable institution and an effective advocate for ‘traditional’ teaching methods in a modern setting. Michaela is described in the press as the ‘strictest school in Britain’, but Birbalsingh’s actual philosophy is one of no excuses for bad behaviour.

She understands what so many have forgotten, which is that the atmosphere in our schools, whether of calm or chaos, is ultimately a choice. That also goes for the scourge of screen addiction. Michaela empowers parents to take back control from the smartphone – offering discounted ‘brick’ phones so that they can call their kids without plugging their brains into the internet.

For sticking her neck out, she attracts a lot of flak – to which only one reply is necessary: you do better. We could certainly do with more doers and fewer talkers in Government (though Birbalsingh is a brilliant speaker too). No doubt she’s too busy giving children the best possible start in life to bother with the greasy pole of politics. Still, I can’t think of anyone better to deal with the delinquents of Westminster.