Four of the country’s newspapers (The Guardian, the Independent, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph) have regular sketch writers, and the Daily Mail employs one intermittently. Given the nakedly nonobjective nature of British newspapers, sketch writers—who usually work themselves up the ranks to achieve their envied positions—tend to mirror the editorial stances of their employers. Hoggart tells me that the sketches of his colleague Quentin Letts, for instance, reflect the “populist hatred for politicians that you expect in a reader of the Daily Mail”—the Mail being synonymous with an old-fashioned England obsessed with the causes of unimpeded immigration and fox hunting. Hoggart is the longest serving of the “Guild of Sketch Writers” (as the group calls itself), having written sketches “on and off” for The Guardian since 1973. P. J. O’Rourke calls him the “P. G. Wodehouse of Westminster,” and it’s not hard to see why. In 2005, witnessing the triumphant return of George Galloway to the House of Commons (days earlier, Galloway had wowed Americans with his Scottish brogue-inflected ranting before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that called him to testify about his alleged taking of bribes from Saddam Hussein), Hoggart wrote that the radical left-wing MP’s incredibly short visit to the parliamentary chamber “was the political equivalent of a dog announcing its presence by peeing on a garden wall.” Riffing on a mid-twentieth-century sketch writer’s essay collection entitled The Glories of Parliament, Hoggart tells me that the title would be “inconceivable today, like The Pleasures of Pedophilia.”
“Verbal cartoonists” is how Hoggart describes himself and his colleagues (sketch writers were long the sole sources of reporting on the atmosphere of Parliament; radio broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings did not begin until 1978, and television cameras were not permitted in the House of Commons until 1989). Sketch writers must come up with “endless metaphors” to describe the political figures they cover. Treneman, reminiscing on her descriptions of beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown, remarks, “I do the bear thing. I did the bull thing for a while.” Andrew Gimson, sketch writer for the Daily Telegraph, asks me if Mark Twain ever wrote about American politics, and when I say that it wasn’t his specialty, he remarks that Twain would “have been a very good sketch writer.”
Politicians’ attitude toward sketch writers varies, depending on the personality of the legislator (“Some politicians want to be liked by the sketch writers because they’re sad people,” Treneman says). John Prescott, Tony Blair’s deputy prime minister, was an early and favorite target given his blustering speaking style and a 2001 incident in which he punched a man who threw an egg in his face. In his last Commons appearance, Prescott (who had earlier ridiculed sketch writers as “screenwriters”) complained about the “penny scribblers in the press gallery,” a reference to James Boswell’s description of parliamentary journalists as “obscure scribblers.” While some may see sketch writing as yet another example of the public’s cynical disdain for politics and public servants, a Labor MP (himself sometimes the subject of the sketch writers’ sharp pens) told me that the existence of sketch writing—to the luxury of making light of politics—is a “quintessential part of a mature democracy” that doesn’t exist in countries where the foundations of liberal government are weak. Frank Field, a backbench Labor MP, suggests that “we should have a draconian regulatory body that has the power to take off limbs for offenses to control the way they report our foolishness.” Clearly, the existence of humor in the relationship between British politicians and the “obscure scribblers” who cover them cuts both ways.