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Biscuitgate and Susan Boyle, no win territory for GB

Posted on 19 October 2009 | 12:10pm

How long before ‘Biscuitgate’ pops up in the ongoing saga of Gordon Brown and his choice of favourite biscuit? Oh, it just did. Richard Nixon, you who opened our politics to the Daddy of the Gates, the Water-one, you have a lot to answer for.

Biscuitgate is real ‘can’t win territory’ for GB, as I learned at the reception prior to the excellent Audience with Stephen Fry for Leukaemia Research at the Criterion, which went some way towards cheering me up after Burnley’s defeat at Blackburn.

‘Can you explain to me,’ asked one Fry-fan as she sipped champagne ‘what on earth is wrong with Gordon Brown that he can’t just answer a straight question about what his favourite biscuit is?’

I tried to give a possible explanation, namely that the Prime Minister had been trying to engage on Mumsnet  about serious policy issues, and the question might have set a tiny alarm bell ringing that his choice of biscuit could take the discussion, and any subsequent coverage, down a less serious route.

‘Yes, but whether he likes it or not,’ came the retort ‘we live in an age where that kind of question gets asked, and people want to see the human side of their leaders, not just the boring policy stuff.’

It was one of those sessions where you were lucky if you got more than a minute to stay in any one conversation, and as I was hosting the event for the charity, I was trying to do the rounds a bit anyway, so we had to leave the biscuit issue there.  

A few chit-chat sessions later, I was in the company of someone in a state of fury even greater than Mrs Biscuitgate. ‘Can you explain to me,’ said Fry-fan Number 2 ‘what on earth Gordon Brown was doing phoning up Simon Cowell to ask how Susan Boyle was standing up to the pressure?’ You see what I mean about can’t win?

I have never discussed Susan Boyle or biscuits with GB, though I have eaten biscuits with him, as we have been at many meetings where biscuits are on the table. I seem to remember he quite likes shortbread and chocolate digestives. I like jaffa cakes, but they tend not to make it onto Number 10 or Number 11 plates, so I’ve usually gone for those ‘Nice’ ones with quite a lot of sugar on them. And frankly, a Boost bar with extra glucose, or a Yorkie bar with (a bit of) biscuit and raisins, beats any biscuit any day of the week. (You see, how ridiculous it would have been if the Prime Minister had started going on about that kind of thing in a serious exchange about childcare, flexible working, minimum wage, policy on carers and so forth – ‘Will Brown’s biscuit choice give him boost he craves?’ ‘Why on why does Gordon Brown talk about biscuits when he should be tackling the debt?’).

So, back at the Criterion theatre, just as I tried to imagine the Number 10 thought processes re the biscuit question, I tried to do the same re Susan Boyle. At the time of the Boyle frenzy, I suggested to Fry-fan 2, Number 10 will have been getting asked the whole time whether GB watched it – (was it X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent, I can’t remember) – and this will have been his way of answering.

As with most things in life, you can make a case both ways. Yes, there was a case for saying what his favourite biscuit was. There was also a case for not saying what his favourite biscuit was. Who bloody cares, apart from biscuit manufacturers and newspapers and websites edited by Phil Space?

Yes, there was a case for him not saying anything about Susan Boyle. And there was also a case for him saying something about Susan Boyle, because, as Fry-fan 1 said ‘we live in an age where that kind of question gets asked, and people want to see the human side of their leaders, not just the boring policy stuff.’

But again, in the scheme of things, it is not important.The golden rule in both, however, is that if it is not important, don’t worry about it. Let the papers blather on. As it happens, there has probably been more biscuit coverage of him not answering than answering, but he was not to know that at the time.

The annoying thing is that it helps David Cameron, because he finds it a lot easier to answer questions about Rich Tea biscuits than he does about why he is giving an inheritance tax cut to his rich mates, or what he intends to do about the Lisbon Treaty now that Czech President Vaclav Klaus has indicated he will not be stalling long enough for a Cameron-led government to have a referendum.

I notice that Biscuitgate gets slightly more space in The Times today, on Page 11, than Klaus-shutting-the-Lisbon-gate-gate gets on Page 20.

But I note too that GB is out and about addressing the issue of climate change, while Dave is probably sitting by his phone hoping one of the papers calls to ask what he thought of Cheryl Cole’s performance on X-Factor on Saturday night.

  • Paul

    I suppose it is a “no win” situation really. Had he named a buscuit, his head would appear in the middle the day before the election on the front page of The Sun and if he didn’t name one, he is accused of being unable to give a simple answer. Obama doesn’t seem to struggle with this.. I think it’s perhaps an art to answer the question but inject a bit of humour so that they don’t take the answer so seriously. In a way I do with Brown would relax a little more. One of the conference interviews went live a few seconds early and you saw this amazing relaxed smiling face, and then suddenly he turned as stiff as cardboard and looked deadly serious. I prefered the smile.

  • Judith Haire

    And I thought I had problems.

  • @jlocke13

    I was quite enjoying this blog until you brought up the old inheritance tax chestnut…Yes DC does find it easier to answer a straight question, because he is genuinely open about such things, GB is unable to answer a straight question because he is obsessed with the “political consequences” of everything he says or does…I note he has today jumped on another passing bandwagon re climate change…If he feels it is that important(death and destruction of the UK!) why doe he not just do what is necessary unilaterally instead of hiding behind the procrastinating skirts of G20….?

  • Tony Pitts

    Shouldnt he just say “I’m prime minister of the country and have far greater concerns to occupy my time. Dont ask me stupid questions” or something like that? I like Mr Brown, and I think the country would like to hear that he’s a serious man and will not give time to such banality. I dont blame Mr Brown, its the idiots who ask the stupid irrelevant questions and constantly try to trip him up.

  • Alan Quinn

    GB didn’t give a very good answer at nthe last PMQs on a defence matter. He was asked why the MoD want to order a 40 yr old American aircraft in preference to a new British one; namely the Nimrod MRA4 made by BAE. Gordon’s rushed answer was no decision has been made yet, hardly a ringing endorsement.
    The factory that makes the plane is due to close in 2012 due to lack of orders, over 1000 skilled jobs will go.

    Imagine if GB had stated something like; ” I can announce to the house that the Nimrod R1 planes will be replaced by the new Nimrod MRA4 keeping valuable skilled workers in work in a recesssion… when I said British jobs for British workers I meant it.”
    Dr Fox was on with Marr yesterday and threw in that the UK must look at joint procurement with the USA to reduce costs. That means to me cancelling the Airbus A400M and the Typhoon tranche 3. As yet no one from Labour has picked up on it.
    This is another instance where Fox has intimated he prefers to buy off the shelf US equipment in preference to UK made kit and Cameron calls Labour the party of unemployment. On Sept 16th Osborne stated he would cancel these two projects as well as the new carriers.
    Labour never picked up on this announcement either. Have a word Ally.

  • Chris C


    You’re right, you can’t win. Some people want one thing, other people want another. He should be judged on performance.

    I couldn’t give a toss what biscuits he eats, or what undies he wears, but I would like to know what he’s doing ringing up Simon Cowell to ask about Susan Boyle’s health.

    (Actually, I already know – he’s keeping up with what I’ll loosely describe as the “cultural” zeitgeist. All power to him, but perhaps concentrate on that in less onerous times. And my favourite biscuits are Tim-Tams. You don’t get them in the UK, but the trusty Penguin is a close approximation.)

  • Tony Pitts

    I guess he should just be himself. I agree he seems obsessed with always wanting to appeal to the masses. Thatcher never did, and she kept getting voted back in. Imagine what she’d have said if she’d been asked about Susan Boyle or flaming biscuits!!!

  • Em

    If Boyle and biscuits were the only thing GB had to worry about, we’d be fine. I have no idea what’s taken over the electorate that they would trust a man (DC) who actually has a ready made answer to the biscuit question.

    As far as “‘we live in an age where that kind of question gets asked, and people want to see the human side of their leaders”, I don’t think that sort of trivia has anything to do with conveying the “common man” aspect of a politician except maybe in one telling instance.

    Do you remember the “town hall” style debate leading to the presidential election between Bush Senior and Bill Clinton when a woman stood up and asked both men what a pint of milk costs? Bush had no idea and some say that is the moment when he lost the election. Of course, this isn’t the sort of question Bill Clinton would fail at. He was a Rhodes Scholar and a lawyer but, above all, Clinton was a bubba and there was no way he was going to be caught off guard so easily.

    Bush Senior came from money and held high office for most of his career. I don’t expect such a man to have bothered with the groceries. Does this make him a bad politician? Not necessarily. I don’t need to have experienced all the travails of my fellow citizens to have empathy for them.

    The electorate does seem to want that “chat show friendly” factor in a politician these days and that is a problem for GB. GB is not a common man. His cerebral nature make him a man ill-fitted for the fashion of our times which, let us be honest, if far more interested in being entertained than anything else (read the book Entertaining Ourselves to Death). The problem is how people and the press use this as a symptom of what makes a bad politician.

    The pint of milk was a better question and it was somewhat germane to matters that involve ruling a country — but getting into trouble over biscuits? Everything’s a minefield and then you wonder why young people won’t go into politics.

  • Claire

    Can’t beat a custard cream…

    Personally, I think GB’s interest in the mental health of SuBo was quite touching. Here was a person who so very publicly needed some help, and rather than the general public watching in their weirdly fascinated way as to what she did next, or completely lost it, it is only right that helping someone and having an interest was publicised. Plus, if our national TV culture was to blame for it, then GB would have been criticised for NOT showing an interest.

    As you say – can’t win…

  • James

    There is actually a subtle difference:

    Someone (part of the electorate presumably) asked Brown a simple question – what biscuit do you like. He couldn’t answer – not even a joke that he likes all biscuits or he doesn’t like biscuits at all. That is just odd.

    With the Susan Boyle issue – the problem was that Brown wasn’t asked by the electorate to call Simon Cowell. He did that because he was advised to do it – presumably because someone felt it would make him seem normal.

    Therefore – trivial as this matter is – it does highlight that Brown isn’t normal. He can’t converse in a normal light-hearted way, or mix serious policy with small talk to engage an audience. But he does desperately follow any hair-brain idea put forward by his advisers to try and pretend to be a normal man of the people. Very sad!

  • Colin Morley

    Gordon was quite right to ignore such a question. You can see the Sun headlines having already been written around the subject of Jammy Dodgers or some such pun. Takes the biscuit, really, doesn’t it!

  • olli issakainen

    I am glad that Stephen Fry has cheered you up. But wasn´t that a great goal from Robbie Blake!

    P.S. Excellent points on your “Spin has spun out of control” video on timesonline. I had to watch it three times and make notes.

  • Simon Gittins

    ‘why he is giving an inheritance tax cut to his rich mates’

    Are you saying that yourself and Tony Blair are his mates, because surely as millionaires you’d both benefit ?

  • Just Sayin\’

    Just to clear up a couple of points:

    1. The biscuit question comes up on Mumsnet regularly. Cameron and Clegg have already answered it. Painlessly. So someone at Number Ten should have warned the PM so that a response could have been prepared – and pre-tested.

    2. Gordon called Simon and Piers to enquire about Susan Boyle’s health purely so that he could (spontaneously) blurt out this fact on the Andrew Marr show the next morning. There would have been no point in making the call if the nation didn’t find out about it. And, sure enough, the nation was predicatably . . . appalled.
    At the sheer, woeful insincerity of the whole exercise.

    I can’t decide what is more depressing. Having a PM who can’t tell you what his favourite biscuit is without first spending days closeted with his advisors deciding which choice would best play to voters in the key marginals and, at the same time, hopefully, wrongfoot the Tories.(Haha! RICH Tea – typical!)
    Or having a PM who’s on first name terms with Piers Morgan.

  • Terry Evans

    This is nuts and just goes to show why the standard of politician that we have is dropping.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire




    POLITICAL NEWS UPDATE (see your blog opposite, dated 19 0ctober 2009)

    The former No 10 Downing Street Director of Communications and Strategy welcomed the results of the first ever genuinely independent review into the biscuit-munching preferences of political spin-doctors. According to a reliable media source, near Westminster Village

    The panel of judges agreed their decision proved difficult, with different brands of biscuit, even scoring neck and neck

    One judge revealed: “ … Choosing Mr Campbell’s favourite biscuit, it wasn’t like the 52% landslide victory that won him the current, prestigious “Mind Champion of 2009” award. Oh no, far from it, because biscuits can be pesky, subjective matter, down to personal tastiness and preference … “

    He added: “ … Ferocious competition among biscuit manufacturers for the coveted award, meant the result would be, by no means, a foregone conclusion … “

    Brands short-listed included the bookies’ firm favourite, a “Yorkie Bar”, a racing certainty, with its bits of raisin stuffed inside

    But the “Yorkie Bar” entry was quickly disqualified. On the grounds, judges couldn’t detect enough biscuit inside the bar to even regard it as a proper biscuit

    Those who backed second-placed favourite, the energy “Boost Bar” – with the extra glucose which athletic performers like Mr Campbell need – also trudged home, disappointed

    The most discerning of the judges then found barely-visible, hairline cracks on the “Nice” brand of biscuit Mr Campbell enjoys. Other judges worried whether chunks of such a biscuit might collapse, once dunked in Mr Campbell’s cup of lukewarm, Earl Grey tea

    Excessive sogginess guaranteed it would fail the “dip in tea” test. Worse still, the prospect of a partial “Nice” biscuit, lying on the surface, dissolving, like some dead goldfish, helplessly floating on the surface of the local “kiddies’ attraction” municipal pond, revolted the panel, all members

    That decision left a clear winner. Yes, packets of those tasty, orange “Jaffa Cakes” – now, apparently, also available in a convenient, travel-size “mini-roll format” for the busy snacker to scoff the lot, in one go

    For example, an ideal nibble for footie-supporters, driving home, disillusioned again, mulling over another dismal Burnley away-fixture result

    Although biscuit-munching Mr Campbell declined to comment on the survey results, at his home in Gospel Oak, Hampstead, a spokesperson for Mr Campbell, Fiona
    Millar, insisted she couldn’t comment on individual biscuit brands, but promised a “biscuit saga” press release would be made available, shortly

    Ms Millar also refused to confirm that the present Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, used to relish shortbreads and those delicious chocolate-covered digestive biscuits, during the mornings whenever it was “ … time for Elevenses at Number 11 Downing Street … “

    Jaffa manufacturers, McVitie’s Cake Company, of Ashby-de-la-Zouch, near Leicester, proved less reticent: “Thrilled, indeed. Passionate about baking Jaffas, free from trans fats, even vegetarians lust after Jaffas – that’s our sales pitch off the packet” – enthused their product spokesperson

    So, there you have it, voters

    Jaffa Cakes – the parliamentary biscuit of our time. And, remember the invite … ‘Ave a Jaffa, total stranger. Now scoff another, intimate Tory friend. A mouth-watering soundbite, some predict, David Cameron, will be spouting before the weekend

    “ … Our Conservative Party policy?… Tastiest biscuits, ever – the stuff genuine political friendships are baked out of … “

    Trevor Malcolm