If someone were emerging from an 18-month-long coma, the gentlest way to introduce them to life at the beginning of 2017 might well be to explain that Leicester City are the English football champions before moving on to the hard stuff of what the hell’s happened to transatlantic politics.
In particular, you’d have to explain the changing cast list. Because one of the effects of the British side of the upheaval/calamity/renaissance/swamp-draining/atrocity (delete according to personal prejudice) has been to consign the bulk of the best-known talent from both major parties to the backbenches (in the Lib Dems’ case, the likes of Vince Cable were mostly booted out in 2015 anyway).
The self-defenestration of David Cameron was followed by the ousting of George Osborne and Michael Gove to join Kenneth Clarke on the sidelines. As for Labour, distaste for a Jeremy Corbyn-led shadow cabinet has kept out Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy, to pluck a few names from the list touted as a possible Labour frontbench by Alwyn Turner in July 2015.
This leaves a dilemma for those forced to sit behind ministers and spokespeople they probably (and probably rightly) feel are of a lower calibre than themselves. Do you offer sincere loyalty (‘the Whitelaw’)? Do you plot relentlessly (‘the Heseltine’)? Do you flounce out altogether, even to the point of leaving the country (‘the Miliband D’)? Or do you fold your arms and pout, neither watching your top team’s backs nor single-mindedly targeting them with a knife, but at best irritating them to distraction?
The sullen kvetch might be the most psychologically satisfying option. And there is one obvious role model, the Sultan of Sulk himself, Edward Heath.
Ejected as Conservative leader by Margaret Thatcher long before what he considered to be his time – after a mere ten years and four general election defeats out of five – Heath did not accept a subordinate role, like his predecessor Alec Douglas-Home, nor immediately disappear from Parliament like Cameron or Tony Blair; instead, he opted to sit sullen-faced just across the way from Mrs T, sniping.
It’s hard to say it did him much good – arguably the sight of Ted slumped on his bench across from the Conservative leader became a more vivid memory of him than that of a prime minister who actually realised his main policy ambition in joining the European Economic Community (as was). And Thatcher survived the bitterness, even if Heath did welcome her eventual downfall by proclaiming to his secretary, ‘Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!’
While that incredible sulk was the most famous, there have been others. Gordon Brown was often spotted with a bit of a face on before he came prime minister, but it was a namesake of a similar hue who took political pouting to the very highest level.
George Brown made his mark early in his parliamentary career in 1947 by trying to have his mentor Ernest Bevin replace Clement Attlee as Labour leader (without telling the unimpressed Bevin). Although that scheme failed, his charisma and verbal pyrotechnical skill – not to mention his closeness to Hugh Gaitskell during the latter’s time as leader – ensured that the Belper MP ended up within touching distance of the leadership himself, his centrist, anti-CND, pro-European views winning him wide media promotion too.
When Gaitskell died in 1963, Brown, as deputy leader, seemed a natural successor. However, his brilliance was mixed with irascibility, and he famously took a drink (or rather didn’t take one very well). Enough Labour MPs (who decided the leadership in those more enlightened days) opted for Harold Wilson, despite that one-time Bevanite’s previous attempt to overthrow Gaitskell, to deny Brown the crown. Brown’s response was to storm off the platform at the nominating conference when Wilson asked him to continue as deputy.
Many were perhaps relieved when Brown made a notorious live television appearance on the night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, giving birth to the phrase ‘tired and emotional’ (the appearance had in fact been preceded by a fight with Magnificent Seven star Eli Wallach).
Still, Brown remained a major figure when Labour got back into power in 1964; during that general election campaign he had put in some barnstorming appearances, culminating in a fine election-night tussle with Robin Day. Whatever his personal foibles (irascibility, impulsiveness and heavy drinking, according to a US Embassy briefing for Kennedy), this was a major star.
However, there was little trust between deputy prime minister Brown and Wilson. Brown was in charge of the new Department of Economic Affairs, but his supposed role in charge of long-term planning was stymied by the Treasury.
He stuck around but fell into full sulk after the devaluation of sterling, against his wishes, in 1967. Brown resigned, then unresigned when Wilson seemed minded to accept. Shifted to the Foreign Office, he did get to make a doomed application to join the Common Market but mostly concentrated on being a semi-detached member of the government, threatening to resign now and then.
‘He didn’t hide the fact that he thought he ought to have been leader and not Harold,’ said Barbara Castle, while someone more ideologically sympathetic to Brown, Denis Healey, said Wilson regarded his deputy as ‘a pain in the rear end, really. Everybody found it difficult to work with George’.
Eventually in March 1968 Brown did quit for good, after a special cabinet meeting went ahead without him, modestly describing the incident as ‘a watershed in my own life and, I think, in our recent political history’. He soon disappeared from the Commons, the Labour Party and then, most sadly, life in 1995. If he is remembered, it is as a bad-tempered drunk, rather than the major post-war figure he might have been had he chosen not to alienate even natural allies like Healey.
More recently, apart from the Brown who was called Gordon, the New Labour era did produce a choice sulk from Charles Clarke after his departure as home secretary in 2006. He spent his time variously attacking successor John Reid, Tony Blair for replacing him with Reid, and Gordon Brown for wishing to replace Tony Blair, and became a general go-to guy if a Labour MP was needed to criticise his own government.
However, the sulk lacked the drama of Heath or Brown. It was also without the precision of Richard Wainwright.
Elected as a Liberal MP in 1966, the bluff Yorkshireman Wainwright was none too impressed when the flashy Jeremy Thorpe became his party’s leader the following year, though he had declined to stand himself on the grounds of inexperience.
Not a major figure like Brown or Heath, Wainwright had to wait to make life difficult for Thorpe. But in 1976 he had his opportunity to wield the knife when scandal overtook the Liberal leader: it was Wainwright who called on Thorpe to ‘sue’ his nemesis Norman Scott, a key moment in Thorpe’s political downfall. Wainwright later told Thorpe’s biographer Michael Bloch that he had not meant to say those words in public, on local radio, but in his resignation letter Thorpe singled out the fact that ‘a parliamentary colleague has taken to the air publicly to challenge my credibility’ as reason to quit.
So, as Geoffrey Howe subsequently proved by going from loyal supplicant to Brutus without any intervening period whatsoever, it is all very well to sulk, but there is more than a little to be said for sucking up any resentment if you ever want to get your way.
Ted Heath and the future Baron George-Brown of Jevington made themselves figures almost of ridicule, and certainly forfeited any political sympathy they might otherwise have merited by their behaviour. It’s a point worth noting for those infuriated by the presence of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn at the heads of their own parties.