One of the more surprising threads of this episode was the strand of Biblical imagery – Peter Mannion addressing Phil as “thou shit and useless servant”, later complaining that he was being strung up like Barabbas (with Phil quibbling that actually Barabbas was the one they let go “they shouldn’t have, though, he was a criminal”) and Glen’s realization that the word “sacrifice” means he won’t be getting anything back on the deal. It doesn’t seem to have a controlling effect on the narrative, or not more than the elaborate excrement metaphors which are used to imagine the Coalition government smearing each other, and to describe the need for toxic information to be flushed out of the system via confidential briefings.1 Still, it’s an intriguing appearance.
Back at the plot, the death of Tickel is becoming even more of an issue than it looked. Mannion is past the point where he can resign with grace or dignity, and now has to fight dirty until he reaches a point where he’s clean enough to exit with honour. The fact that he’s thinking like this does rather put him in the same strategic category as Macbeth and the nameless protagonist of Layer Cake. And a good few tyrants in history, I expect, if we had the transcripts. But it does mean he’s given up on looking dolefully soulful (or soulfully doleful) and has started telling people to fuck off and play a lot more. It also means he’s trying to redirect the flak by calling for the Tickel enquiry to cover the culture of PFI2 contracts, in the knowledge that Nicola Murray’s husband was career-deep in PFI and may be good for a little partisan whatabouttery. “He’s as dodgy as a Russian…well, as a Russian” declares Phil.3
Nicola herself is busy coming apart. Having lost her position as leader of the party to Dan Miller, she tries to exit graciously (hark, I scent a parallel) to what she sees as her rightful place as party grandee. Blandee, more like, opines Tucker. The final insult is not so much the abuse, but the fact that when she threatens to declare war on the new leadership, Malcolm doesn’t threaten her back. She’s not even worth crushing any more, it seems. (Stress “seems” – Nicola is surely too good a character to disappear entirely.)
Tucker’s own management of the successful Miller cabal has put him in the epicentre of opposition once again. Last episode he congratulated Ollie in atypically flamboyant style on his first “confirmed kill” with that balloon delivered to his hospital bed. This one sees him ringing Ollie in said bed and demanding he sign himself out and hurry on over to be initiated into Tucker’s handful of Labour enforcers. This all rang rather false to me whilst I was watching it – the conscious macho bonhomie, the description of political activity in military terms – it was too redolent of a US political journalist I once heard defending his use of the F word on the grounds that he and his colleagues used the language of a military barracks. (I dunno what servicemen he hangs out with, but they must live in some staggeringly genteel accommodation if he thinks what he uses is typical military language…) In short, and with due recognition that I am falling into the nationalistic pit I have digged for my own feet with that footnote, it all seems a bit unBritish.
Added to which, the first task he sets Ollie is to walk a brown envelope over to an MP, within which is a photograph which will underline to said politician why making his own bid for the leadership would be unwise and hurtful. This, too, seemed a bit of an odd note. Not that Tucker would be unwilling or incapable of using the tradition whips’ office techniques of blackmail – as we discovered in the radio station episode – but precisely because it’s a traditional move it was unexpected. Photos in safes are the province of House of Cards and political dramas of similar vintage, surely.
Of course the show was one step ahead of me, and quickly demonstrated that though Tucker could control whose sexual deviances made their way into the light of the day, it is the Grid, not the whips, which matters in modern politics. As we’ve seen before in these recaps, The Thick Of It repeatedly suggests the way old-style Parliamentary bruisers are being rendered obsolete by changing conditions.4 As the two Lib Dem newts ask Glen to leak an email about Mr. Tickel’s death, and he botches it by sending the entire chain (containing many predictably Mr. Men-based funnies), the scope of the enquiry somehow widens to the culture of leaking as a whole. A Leveson for the political system, if you will. And that is not something anyone wants. This is the end of the world as we know it, declares Malcolm, like a vampire misattributing an REM lyric.
1 As fans of Yes, Minister will recall, this is one of Bernard’s irregular verbs: I give confidential briefings, you leak, he has been charged under Section 19 of the Official Secrets Act…
2 Private Finance Initiatives – an unkind observer might say they were a way for the Blairite “third way” to privatise things without having to use that verb. Or at least to route massive quantities of private capital into the state system of provision, without worrying about the obligations, profits and perverse incentives that might entail.
3 Totally unreasonable slur on a fine nation. Fact that the last freelance job I did involved a Russian client who wanted it completed in half the time and then tried to avoid paying me, admittedly meant that I snorted at the line. But we should still read it as a thought-provoking reflection on the way post-Soviet global economics have repositioned national cultural identities. In short, we should be reading Mischa Glenny’s last three books, not indulging xenophobic snipes from scions of the political class like Phil Smith, who’re just sore that we don’t have an empire the size of Russia’s any more.
4 The recent allegations around Andrew Mitchell – a government chief whip who reportedly demanded to run the office more like an officers’ mess than a sergeants’ mess – are backing up their implied assertions. Swearing at the police in Downing Street, and calling them “plebs” who need to “learn [their] place” (as Mitchell is alleged to have done) may be old-timey contact politics. But when that information leaks out, it makes the bruiser look like a liability.