As we hop back over to the other side of the parliamentary divide, Malcolm Tucker, Labour spin doctor and “master of the Dark Arts” – and I’m going to have to stop that sentence there. As a point of terminology, can we shelve the phrase “Dark Arts” for a while? Just rest it up, and see if it becomes persuasive of its own accord, now that J.K. Rowling has started writing busily other books I don’t want to read. As a term to describe what party Whips and communications directors do, I’ve heard it used to cover hacking voicemail, briefing journalists against one’s own colleagues, and pinning junior staff up against a wall and screaming obscenities at them in front of their friends. None of which seem to cohere into any deep cabbalistic mystery, they’re just variant forms of thuggishness. Calling them “the Dark Arts” only encourages those involved to think of them as glamorous and subtle. Aside from which, it makes us sound like Phil Smith over at Tory HQ – though at least his nerd references are from Tolkien and Lucas.
So, anyway. Tucker is off to see Olly, whom he beautifully describes as “looking like a Quentin Blake illustration”. Olly returns the favour by addressing him as “scary Morrissey”. It’s all nicely allusive stuff. That’s a charmingly layered piece of abuse, come to think of it. The suggestion of deep misery and depression which Tucker’s hollow eyes are particularly giving off these days, alongside the hint that it’s all a bit teenage and self-indulgent. Never mind Morrissey’s regular flirting with the imagery of the far right, which suggests that he often finds himself preferring the forms of power and the ability to shock people more than any particular content he might wish to offer. Still, let’s keep it light.
This is a special day for Malcolm, a sort of homecoming. He’s preparing a coup against Nicola Murray, leader of the Opposition. The splendid insults I just quoted set the tone well, because this is an almost nostalgic episode for the first quarter of an hour or so. Ben Swain is brought back in as a stalking horse to trigger a leadership contest, Dan Miller is a threatening presence off-screen, it has the air of a reunion tour. And I think this affects our allegiance as audience – at least those of us who watched the previous seasons. Just as the show got us on Peter Mannion’s side last episode, without making us particularly like him, we slip into rooting for Tucker because it feels like the good old days. He calls Swain “the hairless Hagrid”, and makes a Downton Abbey joke which I suspect they only got away with either because the show is on later than it used to be, or because Capaldi’s accent might have obscured it for some watchers.
Along with the nostalgia (and it is good to see Malcolm back in full flow), the coup is attractive because it offers the potential for action. So much of The Thick Of It concentrates on futility and inertia that when something might actually happen, the excitement of motion rather overrides any pondering whether it’s a good something or not. Wanting Tucker’s putsch to come out successfully isn’t a judgement on Nicola’s character – though we might want to worry at some point about how much more engaging she is now she’s more openly vicious to her political enemies – it’s the thrill of any action in a system which feels inert. Which sums up pretty well the reaction of a lot of the media (and perhaps the public) to cabinet reshuffles or leadership contests in real life. Or IRL, as I believe it is known in non-RL.
Nicola is trapped on a train with a handler who keeps up a steady flow of inane chatter (including Hogwarts references which I swear I hadn’t heard when I typed the first paragraph – point stands, though) and a news team who are just there to get atmosphere. They practically need gasmask if that’s what they’re after, as the coup prompts Nicola into increasingly desperate attempts to keep Swain onside by offering him any post he wants in the shadow cabinet, via Olly, who is lying in a hospital bed after an appendectomy. And who is in fact stitching them up as he’s been suborned by Tucker. Well, not so much suborned as having just come to heel when Malcolm whistled. The multiple-way phone conversations in toilets and train corridors – and Nicola actually abandoning the train to lose her handler – either paint politics as a shambolic mess which people make up as they go along, or a mucky process which has to happen within people’s lives, rather than in some abstruse realm above everyday existence. Or those may be the same thing, I’m not sure.
The coup duly succeeds. Partly because three years ago, people were sufficiently unaware of FOI to put details of policy in emails – let’s look forward (!) to that looking like a charmingly archaic ritual practice over the next decade. But either way, Murray is out and Dan Miller is in. A balloon in a box arrives at Olly’s hospital bed, with a card reading “Congratulations on your first confirmed kill.” And Tucker introduced the “anointed man”, Dan Miller, to his new staff. “Please, please, I’m not Christ.” He smiles smugly as they applaud. “He was quite a scruffy man…”