The Animal has returned from a very successful wildlife watching trip to Badenoch and Strathspey (and before anyone asks, Mr Charles Whelan was not amongst the fauna spotted) to find that there has been something of a hoo-hah over blogs, emails, smears and spin doctors.
My immediate action, having been at the receiving end of plenty of Tory-inspired smears during my brief career in student politics, is to sigh, shrug and mutter “’twas ever thus”. And then to refrain from any further comment.
But one thing stands out from this mess for the Animal is not that the political blogosphere has somehow ‘come of age’ (I’m far from convinced) but that it has confirmed the existence of a new career path for Britain’s politicians: that of MP as blogger. It is a highly risky path, albeit probably no more so than the high-wire route of seeking government office. It is probably also a route with relatively few vacancies in a limited market: but then so are the routes of scrutiny and executive. And it does hold out the possibility of far greater glory, notoriety (and indeed power) than will ever accrue to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Folding Deckchairs.
Before the Easter weekend, most people outside of Mid Bedfordshire and the Westminster village would have resoundingly responded ‘Who?’ to any mention of Nadine Dorries. Most people probably still would, but I don’t want to destroy my own case here. Yet this backbench Tory MP was considered worthy of the attention of the Prime Minister’s special adviser and a rather questionable ex-spin doctor. Why was this the case? It cannot be that Ms Dorries is seen as a potential high-flyer to be brought down to earth: it can be confidently predicted that she will not be gracing a Conservative front bench in either opposition or government at any point of her parliamentary career. Dorries’ unashamedly ditzy persona may win her some admirers, but few of them will be in the Conservative Chief Whip’s office. Nor is Ms Dorries inhabiting a marginal seat – she has an 11,000 majority over the Lib Dems. In short, Nadine Dorries presents no obvious threat to Labour. Certainly, as well documented elsewhere, she represents a clear threat to a woman’s right to choose, but I refuse to ascribe such a pure motive as the defence of that right to Damian McBride’s cack-handed mudslinging.
No, the true reason for Dorries being targeted is quite simple: she has a blog, she updates it frequently (unlike me), it is occasionally a bit controversial, and it has something of a following. Amongst Westminster’s bloggers, she is in the top half-dozen and has therefore achieved a fame and notoriety far beyond what she would otherwise achieve. An embarrassing story about her would probably create greater ripples than a similar story about many far more senior Tory colleagues.
And the same seems to hold on the government side too. One of the right’s main targets in the whole ‘Smeargate’ affair, now that MacBride is gone, has been Tom Watson. Now, Mr Watson is at least a minister, but generally the Minister for Transformational Government at the Cabinet Office isn’t going to be of great interest to anyone much, really. But Watson is a blogger too, so he suddenly becomes a tempting target for the right’s blogospheric attack dogs. Would the baying pack be anything like as significant if this was little known Jim No-blog MP? Almost certainly not.
As another example of the power afforded to backbenchers by blogs, we can quote Tom Harris, Frank Field, John Redwood or Paul Flynn. The first three of these are ex-ministers, who were it not for their well-written blogs, would have sunk into obscurity (well deserved in two cases). Instead, they are quoted frequently in the media and their occasional off-message remarks are plastered all over the press as being demonstrative of splits within their respective parties.
So will the independent minded blogger option become a semi-formal career route for backbench MPs? Maybe. It seems likely that each parliament will throw up a few such examples and a limited number will break through into the big time currently inhabited by Dorries, Watson, Harris and Redwood. Others will attempt it, possibly carving themselves out a niche but not quite entering the blogosphere’s consciousness: examples (from opposite ends of the political spectrum) might be John McDonnell and Douglas Carswell. Quite a lot of others, attracted by the apparent ease of fame and media access afforded to the successful will try – and fail miserably. Many MPs are simply unsuited to writing a blog which is anything other than a diary to keep their constituents informed of their activities (although that is to be encouraged): either they are too loyal to their party, lack originality of thought or the ability to write well.
The third route for MPs to take to avoid back-bench obscurity was to be ‘a character’. Dennis Skinner is your prime example, the late Eric Forth another. Blogging seems set to replace that route – and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure, Parliament needs its eccentrics, but it also needs people from all sides who can put forward lucid arguments and stimulate debate. That opportunity shouldn’t be limited to frontbenchers and mavericks. Blogging could yet rejuvenate the role of the backbench MP – providing it doesn’t claim too many victims to make it look like the recourse of the suicidal politician.