The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards, sponsored by Benenden, has already made the headlines. What started out in 1983 as a lunch with two dozen people has turned into the British equivalent to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – where politicians turn up with their best lines, teasing themselves and each other, with results that routinely make the national news. The tone was set brilliantly this year by George Osborne, our guest of honour. His speech was so funny, so searingly sharp, they he set a bar for everyone else. Here it is.
Then, the awards kicked off. My own spiel is below – and then that of the winners. George Osborne presented each of them with the award, and we had a bottle of Pol Roger sent to their table – with the exception of Farage who was sent a keg of Hobgoblin beer. This is the text as I meant to say it: either George or Boris actually nicked my speech halfway through, leaving me naked on the podium – so I had to ad lib the last few awards.
- Backbencher of the Year – Jess Phillips
Being a backbencher is a tough job, and not everyone can hack it. Take David Cameron for example – after just a few weeks he realised that listening to Bill Cash debate the Brexit bills now coming down the tracks was just too much punishment.
Not all party leaders appreciate the hard work of their parliamentary party, but Jeremy Corbyn does. He’s come up with his own kind of honours system, placing them in various different categories of esteem. ‘Core group plus’, ‘neutral but not hostile’. Our winner hails from perhaps the most prestigious of categories: ‘core group negative’ – and what do you need to do to acquire this status? The best Prime Minister that Labour never had once put it well: you have to ‘fight, fight and fight again,’ he said, for the party that you love.
Our winner has certainly been doing this. Whether it’s in the chamber or online, she comes out swinging. Standing up for the values that she believes in – while many of her more experienced colleagues duck for cover. But at a time when the very word ‘parliamentarian’ is used as a term of abuse, she wears it as a badge of pride. Our backbencher of the year is Jess Phillips.
Our next award is resignation of the year – to recognise the art of going out forcefully, if not always gracefully. There’s the Mark Carney tantric method – stretching it out over three years. Then there’s the Nigel Farage Groundhog Day method, where you keep doing it because practise makes perfect. But our winner, who is part Japanese and the son of a fighter pilot, tried a new kind of kamikaze approach. He knew it would end his career, but he wanted to take out a target while he did it,
His timing wasn’t great: on behalf of all journalists, can I please ask that no one again resigns at 9pm on a Friday? And his protocol? Room for improvement. The Prime Minister was trying to talk him out of resigning when he saw on Sky News that the deed had already been done. History does not record how many expletives were then used in that conversation. But it does record that welfare cuts in question were then abandoned. Our winner hit his target. Please welcome Iain Duncan Smith.
- Campaigner of the Year – John McDonnell
This has been the year of campaigns – none more extraordinary than the campaign for Brexit. But fundamentally, the case for an independent Britain was a strong one – and fairly easy to win. The same cannot be said of the case for the Labour Party re-electing a leader whose main mission seems to be to find out just how small the Labour bedrock vote actually is. That takes certain imagination, energy and audacity. Qualities which our winner has in spades.
Not many in this room may appreciate what he did – apart from the Prime Minister. But no one can deny that something extraordinary happened. Now and again, MPs can reshape their party’s leadership. But the winner has done something unprecedented: he has fundamentally reshaped the membership, persuading tens of thousands of new members to join – and transform – the party. Jeremy Corbyn was the face of this phenomenon, but the brains belonged to his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
Neither of them would ever stoop so low as to be here tonight, and drink Pol Roger with the reviled out-of-touch elite. But Diane Abbott has agreed to join us, because the struggle, after all, does take many forms.
- Peer of the Year – Lord Dubs
The Upper Chamber is becoming a pretty crowded place nowadays, with something like eighteen new arrivals this year. And even now, David Cameron is asking if there is any room left for the Uber driver who chauffeured him home with such skill and grace the other night. But the new recruits will have someone to learn from. Someone who has shown that the House of Lords, if used properly, is a place where one person can overturn government policy.
In this case, it was David Cameron’s plan not to accept more refugees from Europe because he was helping those in the Middle East instead. It was a strong argument – but it seems our winner had a stronger one. In an act of political jujitsu, this 84-year-old wrestled the government machine, won, and had the Prime Minister agree to take in child refugees from Calais.
5. Speech of the Year – Rachel Reeves
It’s impossible to look back on the events of this year without thinking about Jo Cox. To have one of parliament’s most promising stars, and most accomplished campaigners, killed while doing her job was a horror to which no words seemed to do justice. But when parliament gathered to mourn her, one speech did sum up the mood of the house – and it was our speech of the year. Parliament would find another MP, she said, but no one could replace the mother of the two children.
This is a new award, to recognise the growing importance of local and devolved government – now producing leaders who are national figures on their own terms. We have Ruth Davidson, who has shown that the phrase Scottish Conservative is no longer a contradiction in terms. There’s Neil Hamilton, who pulled off an unlikely comeback as leader of Ukip in Wales, without having to punch anyone.
But the winner of our award is on a different league of achievement. Through the whole London mayoral campaign he was famously shy about his own background. Even now, we don’t know what his dad did for a living. Perhaps he can tell us later on.
He oozed energy, and won a victory entirely on his own terms – and wasn’t even pictured once on the campaign trail with his party leader. But then again, he did say he wouldn’t share a platform with extremists.
The new Mayor of London is already being tipped as a future leader of his party. As Boris Johnson will tell him, it’s all possible – as long as you don’t hire Michael Gove as your campaign manager.
7. Comeback of the Year – Boris Johnson
This is an award we very rarely offer. To qualify, you don’t just have to overcome a few obstacles – you need to have come back from the political dead. Our winner is a man who won perhaps one of the greatest and most remarkable victories in British politics, then the day after he went off to play cricket – and ended up being stumped. In the most spectacular style, by his own manager.
He looked not just defeated, but broken – destined to spend his days as a kind of upmarket Ed Balls, dismally touring the television studios. Living off the crumbs of yesteryear’s fame.
After being editor of The Spectator, of course, life is one big disappointment. But in an inspired move he was redeemed and rehabilitated and unleashed on the world stage as as Foreign Secretary. In Brussels, he is already known as the polyglot homme formidable. He has become living proof that, as he once said, there is no such thing as a disaster – only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters. Please welcome Boris Johnson.
[When Boris started to refer to Brexit as a ‘titanic success’, cries of ‘it sank!’ start to come from the room and the PM buried her heads in her hands. Then started to think of a response.]
When a referendum result is as close as 52/48, you can point to a whole bunch of events – and people – that could have swung it either way. If Boris hadn’t joined in, would Leave have made it over the line? If Michael Gove hadn’t declared, would Boris have done the same? What if Amber Rudd hadn’t turned down a lift home in Boris Johnson’s car?
But looking beyond the short campaign, there is one man without whom there would probably not have been a referendum at all. Someone who wasn’t taken seriously because he was banging on the pub door at 11am. Someone who has never sat in Westminster – but who still pulled off the greatest democratic coup in living memory.
He is the Marmite politician of our age – and that’s quite some compliment, seeing how expensive Marmite is nowadays. The last time he had something to celebrate, he went skinny-dipping with Aaron Banks – and they’re both here tonight. Fully clothed, but the night is young.
Plenty of political action happened outside of the chamber, but these awards are intended to focus on what happens inside. About a year ago, in the Syria debate, people knew that a frontbencher was about to speak out against his party leader, which is in itself rare enough.
It’s often said that the highest mark of respect for a political speech is when MPs leave the Commons bars and go to listen to it. But this was a speech of such power and potency that ordinary people in ordinary bars were picking up news of its delivery. Some followed the speech live on mobile phones, on social media. Others actually tuned in.
They’d have seen our winner directing his closing remarks to his own party. Saying it has always been defined by its internationalism, and its willingness to confront fascists. And when he sat down, the Commons erupted in an applause the like of which has seldom been seen or heard in the chamber. Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives all instantly recognised not only one of the great Westminster speeches of our time but the boiling-over of a decent, patient and principled man. Normally we’d make this speech of the year – but this was more than a piece of Parliamentary theatre. It was a piece of Parliamentary history. Please welcome Hillary Benn.
10. Politician of the year: Theresa May
Our final award is for the politician of the year, where the judges have to answer: to whom does this year really belong? Just a few months ago, many would argue that the Home Secretary’s chances of reaching No10 were no higher than her chances of hitting her immigration target. But this is the year that Leicester City won the premiership, the year where long shots make it.
And just after the referendum, David Cameron’s would-be successors were falling as fast as the pound. Our winner then emerged – refreshed from a relaxing referendum campaign. She says she doesn’t treat politics as a game, but she just happens to be rather good at it. As she might put it: winning means winning.
I suspect that even her critics will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that the Tory leadership race had produced a winner. Within hours, she was applying purpose and direction to a government that had run out of both.
There’s an old saying: cometh the hour, cometh the man. The theory is that if the mess is big enough, then the right person will emerge to fix it. It doesn’t always work – just look at the US election – but this time, in Britain, it did work. With one major difference – it wasn’t a man who came forward, but a woman.
[At this point, Theresa May pitches up in a hard hat and high-vis jacket- and steals the show.]