"It's been claimed that the sneaky voting tactics used against Tony Blair in the Commons this week were inspired by an episode of The West Wing. So what other political tricks can the show teach us? By Mark Lawson
In yesterday's papers, it was claimed that the "sleepover" episode of The West Wing - in which the Republicans are tricked into calling an important vote on the basis that there aren't many Democrats around (when in fact the Democrats are hiding out in an empty office) - provided direct inspiration for this week's "rebellion by stealth", which included an "under the radar" Tory whipping operation, against the government's religious hatred bill.
1. Wear Black-Tie for War Crimes
In arguably the finest West Wing episode, Posse Comitatus, a foreign leader is illegally assassinated on Bartlet's secret orders while the Prez, in tuxedo, attends a gala performance of The Wars of the Roses. The advantage for a leader is that this allows slick and ironic intercutting between Shakespearean and modern acts of regicide and also long, silent passages in which the top man can display magisterial moral anguish while observers reflect that civilised public dress may hide savage private actions.
2. Never Marry a Doctor
The benefit to a politician of a medical spouse is that she can administer secret injections to get him through the multiple relapsing multiple sclerosis he's keeping from the people. But the drawback is that the extreme right can use medical malpractice suits brought against the missus to discredit you, and that her quiet word to the anaesthetist before you are operated on following an assassination attempt may release the secret and threaten your career. Robin Cook's divorce from Dr Margaret Cook prevented this theory being tested in British politics but US presidential hopeful Howard Dean, a doctor married to a doctor, should pay attention.
3. How to Bring Peace to the Middle East
By courting moderate Palestinian leaders, drive a wedge between the members of the Authority. Then invite these moderates to meet Israeli leaders at Camp David during a weekend in which an attractive young female aide suffers a pulmonary embolism caused by the earlier bombing of her Jeep in the Gaza Strip. Next, arrange for your chief of staff to suffer a heart attack in the woods - after disagreeing with your Jerusalem solution - and for a young employee to agonise about completing his college qualifications. Finally, secure a two-state solution using US (yes, not UN) troops to police a Jerusalem in which Arabs have sovereignty over their holy sites but Israel is not required to surrender sovereignty over Jerusalem.
4. Speak Latin/Win a Nobel Prize
While it was once said that George W Bush thought Latin is what they speak in Latin America, Jeb [sic] Bartlet is fluent in the language of the Romans, able to silence aides with throwaway lines such as "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" and to rail against God in Latin while standing in an empty cathedral after the death of his secretary. Conservatives might like to note that Boris Johnson is the leading Latin-speaking politician in Britain, although he lacks another important element of Bartlet's authority: having won a Nobel prize for economics. The message to aspiring politicians is clear: don't think London or Washington, think ancient Rome and Stockholm.
5. Never Dye Your Hair
Despite his mastery of dead languages and supply-side models, Bartlett has a single moral weakness: the most unlikely hair-colour on a sixtysomething man this side of Paul McCartney. For the first three seasons, aficionados wore out the colour and contrast buttons on the remote until realising that he was meant to look like that. Chancellor Schroder of Germany is the only modern leader known to have followed the Bartlet barnet model and was mocked for it. Significantly, Bush and Blair are both now playing glad to be grey.
6. Stand Lobbyists in the Lobby
Political activists can perhaps learn from the season three episode The Indians in the Lobby, in which a pair of Munsee-Stockbridge Indians stand in the central thoroughfare of the White House and refuse to move until the president settles a grievance with the interior department. The drawback of this is that you have to get yourself invited first but a couple of Exmoor hunters or frustrated educationalists should certainly consider a blockade of young Leo's playroom.
7. Don't Consult Drunken Toffs on Foreign Policy
If India and Pakistan are poised to fight a nuclear war over Kashmir, it is inadvisable to seek advice from a completely pissed English aristocrat called Lord Andrew Maybury [sic] who is played by that thin one who was Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC all those years ago.
8. Choose Aides with Personal Problems
Whitehall uses "positive vetting" to eliminate employees with potential embarrassments to the administration. But forget this: the West Wing model is negative-vetting. When selecting staff, it's crucial to choose people who have - or potentially might develop - a dark personal secret. Perhaps your chief of staff could be a recovering alcoholic and gambler, while another key aide could have a brother in the military or be dating your daughter or have inadvertently slept with a call-girl or suffer the unwanted attentions of a stalker, leading to the need for a personal security guard with whom she falls deeply in love just before he gets shot. The old-fashioned political playbook says that this would cause problems in the office but the more holes in your payroll you have, the more opportunities you will be offered as a leader to demonstrate your wisdom, tolerance and compassion.
9. Walk and Talk at High Speed
All conversations in politics should be conducted at high speed while striding down corridors. This combines legislation with exercise, keeping the leader and his employees telegenic. If walk-talk became a policy in British politics, John Prescott would soon have a 32in waist and David Cameron cheekbones.
10. Prevent Successors
President Bartlet has achieved the dream of all politicians: when he leaves office later this year, he will not be replaced, because the whole show has been brought to an end due to falling public enthusiasm. Gordon Brown will just have to hope that Tony hasn't been following The West Wing too closely."
From The Independent:
"But others still blame the Chief Whip. A Liberal Democrat whip said: "Armstrong was complacent. We knew we could win, but we didn't let them have any clues." The Liberal Democrats used a plot in the US West Wing television series in which rebels ambushed a Democrat majority by hiding before a vote."
From the Times:
"ROWAN ATKINSON’S supporters in Parliament mounted a sophisticated ambush to defeat the Government over its laws against religious hatred. To borrow a phrase from the comedian’s television series Blackadder, they had “a cunning plan”.
They realised that only 25 to 30 Labour MPs might rebel and that in a trial of strength with government whips they would lose. So, instead of seeking publicity to gain momentum for a rebellion, they opted for stealth and targeted lobbying.
Labour rebels worked closely with Evan Harris (Lib Dem, Oxford West and Abingdon), who supplied briefing material and urged Dominic Grieve, the Tory spokesman whose MPs were on a two-line whip, to get the maximum number of Tory MPs to the Commons.
By the time the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill left the Lords last week its opponents had only a few days to organise and table amendments but they did so with military efficiency. Only three rebel Labour MPs signed cross-party amendments objecting to the Bill as it stood, in order not to draw attention to others ready to join them.
Evangelical Christian groups were persuaded not to lobby atheist Labour MPs, which was judged counter-productive. Instead Labour rebels were targeted by humanist or Roman Catholic groups, either directly or by getting constituents to contact them. Rowan Atkinson and the writers Ian McEwan and Hari Kunzru joined the campaign, but in a low-key way to avoid wide publicity that might alert government whips, who only realised the danger on Tuesday when two dozen of their MPs were helping in the Dunfermline by-election.
Some Labour rebels admitted to their whips that they would vote against, while others replied that they were “still thinking about it” — a phrase that should strike terror into a whip’s heart.
One leading Labour rebel told The Times: “We could never surprise them again like this, I don’t see, for at least a decade. Whips should watch The West Wing. On Sunday night the Democrats were trying to get something through Congress and used exactly the same tactics — low profile.”"
From the Telegraph:
"The defeat is being dubbed the "West Wing plot" because it was hatched by rebel Labour MPs after they had watched an episode of the television series about a fictional American president."
Also from the Telegraph:
"The television series The West Wing about the life and times of a fictional US president was the inspiration for the "rebellion by stealth" that humbled Tony Blair and his Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong.
Slumped in front of the television on Sunday night, one of the leaders of the revolt watched with growing interest as Democrats won a key vote on stem cell research by pretending not to be around.
The congressmen hid in an empty office and then triumphantly emerged in force when the vote was called by the unsuspecting Republican speaker.
"That's where the idea came from," the MP, who declined to be identified, told The Daily Telegraph. "We had no big press conferences, no events announcing the coming protest. It was directly inspired by the West Wing," he said."
From the Sunday Herald:
"THE Tories’ ambush was rumoured to have been inspired by a repeat episode of US political drama The West Wing, which saw the show’s Democrat minority triumph in a Congressional vote by hiding key congressmen and women in the Capitol building overnight and then surprising the Republican majority by marching into the chamber unexpectedly.
But one Labour MP said Armstrong’s ability to control her own side was more Carry On Counting than the West Wing."
Even as his 22-year-old son was beginning a six-week stint as an intern on Capitol Hill last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was having almost as bad a time of it as Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Republicans. And he could blame part of his troubles on the TV series “The West Wing.” First, Blair was confronted Tuesday with screaming headlines in the London tabloids pointing out that the 100th British soldier had been killed in Iraq. Many papers published the names and faces of all 100 casualties. Then Blair suffered a twin humiliation in Parliament as the House of Commons defeated two bills outlawing racial and religious hatred, the second by a single vote when he failed to show up after aides told him his vote wouldn’t be needed. One MP told The Daily Telegraph that the under-the-radar strategy used to lull Blair’s supporters into complacency “was directly inspired” by a recent episode of “The West Wing.” A contrite Blair, who has one of the worst voting-attendance records in Parliament, promised to be more diligent about showing up for key votes, especially one on an education bill scheduled in mid-March that even his allies say he must win if he is to continue as prime minister. Blair spokesman Ian Gleeson told The Hill that his boss was in no mood to comment on his son, Euan, who will split his time between the House Rules Committee and its chairman, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). “The prime minister does not like to talk about his family or personal matters,” Gleeson said. "
From The Hill:
"Blair bills torpedoed; MP says ‘The West Wing’ is to blame
Even as his 22-year-old son was beginning a six-week stint as an intern on Capitol Hill last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was having almost as bad a time of it as Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and House Republicans. And he could blame part of his troubles on the TV series “The West Wing.”
First, Blair was confronted Tuesday with screaming headlines in the London tabloids pointing out that the 100th British soldier had been killed in Iraq. Many papers published the names and faces of all 100 casualties.
Then Blair suffered a twin humiliation in Parliament as the House of Commons defeated two bills outlawing racial and religious hatred, the second by a single vote when he failed to show up after aides told him his vote wouldn’t be needed.
One MP told The Daily Telegraph that the under-the-radar strategy used to lull Blair’s supporters into complacency “was directly inspired” by a recent episode of “The West Wing.”
A contrite Blair, who has one of the worst voting-attendance records in Parliament, promised to be more diligent about showing up for key votes, especially one on an education bill scheduled in mid-March that even his allies say he must win if he is to continue as prime minister.
Blair spokesman Ian Gleeson told The Hill that his boss was in no mood to comment on his son, Euan, who will split his time between the House Rules Committee and its chairman, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).
“The prime minister does not like to talk about his family or personal matters,” Gleeson said. "
See summary for 6th season episode "A Good Day".