finance

Meerkats, ministers and the price of Theresa May’s words


I was very taken with the news that one of Theresa May’s parliamentary aides got her to use the word “simples” in parliament as a wager with another MP. Seema Kennedy bet another MP the price of tea at the Ritz that she could insert the meerkat’s catchphrase from the Compare the Market insurance advert into one of Mrs May’s answers at Prime Minister’s Questions.

As yet, it is unclear whether Mrs May was aware of the bet and whether she was being a good sport but, either way, this seems like a game that we should enjoy. For a start, there must be numerous advertising slogans that would lend themselves to the cut and thrust of British politics.

“Chris Grayling just offered £14m to a ferry company that has no boats and now he feels epic. Chris, you’re so MoneySuperMarket.” Given the general state of UK indebtedness and the occasional need to throw money at a political problem, chancellor Philip Hammond could surely give a shout out to a financial services firm. “For expedient pork-barrel bungs, there’s public spending. For everything else there’s Mastercard.”

Now we think about it, you have to ask, have the bets stopped with words or slogans? Can we be certain it has not already extended to policies? You do wonder. Suddenly the HS2 rail project, George Osborne’s Help to Buy payola to the housing industry and the appointment of Chris Grayling as justice secretary make perfect sense, once you understand they were never planned policies. They were just slipped into a conference speech by a couple of bored special advisers to decide who would get in the next round at The Red Lion.

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And why are the public excluded from this jolly jape? Why should the Westminster elite have all the fun? Surely we can all get in on the act via crowdfunded campaigns. It’s simple: we create a GoFundMe, set a target and, if it is reached, the MP in question has to speak the words people have pledged cash to hear them say.

I’m sure voters would pay good money to hear Theresa May say “Are we sure Brexit means Brexit?” or “Strong and stable — really that was an aspiration rather than a firm commitment.” For the right sum, I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn could be required to sing “God Bless America”. As for the new Independent Group, crowdfunding public statements must be the perfect paradigm for a party still working out what it stands for.

But this is penny-ante stuff. If British politicians are going to lend their name in product placement, we ought to be looking at this as a revenue stream. How much would a major company pay for such ministerial endorsement? Brexit Questions are brought to you by Paddy Power: Please Bet Sensibly. Given the high turnover of work and pensions secretaries — five in three years — this is surely a no-brainer for Microsoft’s What’s Next campaign.

Then again, not every top brand may want to be associated with our leading politicians at present. Perhaps the revenue model here is how much they might pay to avoid the endorsement. I see serious shakedown possibilities here. “Hello, is that Hollister? We want £20m in the exchequer or Jeremy Hunt is going to tell parliament he buys all his clothes at your store.” Or perhaps: “Hello L’Oréal, £50m by Monday. The prime minister says it’s because she’s worth it.”

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I know this may seem like a step too far but, really, when you consider that in the not-too-distant past governments and prime ministers effectively sold peerages — or to put it another way, seats in the legislature — in return for donations and political favours, then it seems pretty much in keeping with our great political traditions. And those funds all went to party coffers rather than to the state. This may not seem like a better plan but at least it would be transparent and the taxpayer will see the benefit.

And while we are on the subject of placing bets on whether you can get Theresa May to say something: slipping in the phrase “I am revoking Article 50” has got to be worth a champagne dinner at least.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley or email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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