Make Me Prime Minister (Channel 4) began this Tuesday. If each episode started with someone walking into a room full of goons saying “You! Make me prime minister!” and the contestants set about creating the next prime minister with crayons, bottletops, shower-plug hair and policy documents from a London think tank, I think I’d like it more.
“I appreciate what Sharon has done with papier-mache and Keynesianism,” the judges could say, “But I feel Kevin’s attempt to use old washing-up bottles, wire hangers and supply-side economics speaks more to the moment.”
I’m pretty sure Boris Johnson was fashioned this way. Some preschoolers toying with the dark arts, some playdough, a bit of attic insulation and a Carry On boxset suddenly found themselves in possession of a chortling, blustering cartoon character who ruins lives. Is that a Disney film? It should be.
Sadly, Make Me Prime Minister leans into the “me” of the title, copying the Apprentice format and applying it to politics. The contestants don’t want to make a prime minister, they want to be prime minister.
There are some flaws with this concept. First, the judges. There’s Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the type of Conservative who worries that the modern Tory party’s self-harming death cult gives the game away and wants to fix things by going on television and being “nice”. We can still deregulate labour markets and offer succour to the wealthy while being pleasant, after all. And there’s Alastair Campbell, the Svengali-like PR guru behind New Labour, a man who knows how to organise a good photo op and also help sell a disastrous war in Iraq.
He’s pretty credulous, is Alastair Campbell. I’m beginning to see how he believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq based on no credible evidence
Yes, that war led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but he looks quite grandfatherly peering over his spectacles, so he’s the face of cuddly centrism now. Remember when the millions of people whose lives British politics was ruining lived far away? Wasn’t that a lovely time? That’s a core premise of this programme.
So Warsi and Campbell bemoan contemporary politics with its blustering, lying ideologues and vow to improve it with a rip-off of The Apprentice, the programme that turned Donald Trump from an attention-obsessed real-estate failure into a man who could be president.
In The Apprentice business drones who have seen Wall Street and missed the point, read Animal Farm and missed the point, and lived through several decades of falling living standards and missed the point believe they have what it takes to stand near someone who plays a millionaire on television. They big themselves up. They say things like “I am a business lion and profit is my prey” and “I hate drama and to avoid it I will cut you.”
Then the business mogul, whether it’s the aforementioned fleshy wig stand of fascism or, in Britain, the roundy-headed inventor of sugar, Lord Sugar, or, in Ireland, a man who owns a garage, sets them tasks. These are tasks they would never be set in the real world of 21st-century specialisation — fishmonging, audio production, tree surgery, actual surgery — so half of them have a complete mental collapse and the other half drift further and further away from reality until they work in the media or Accenture.
That Campbell and Warsi adopt this format as though it’s a 19th-century Whig reform tells you a lot about how far politics has fallen. “It would be extraordinary if one or more of the people who goes through this process become elected politicians,” says Campbell, as though the reality-TV-to-politics pipeline isn’t already well established. He’s pretty credulous, is Campbell. I’m beginning to see how he believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq based on no credible evidence.
If this show posits anything it’s that people who want to be leaders are a self-selecting group who aren’t hugely different from reality-television stars
It also says a lot that one of the prospective politicians is Jackie Weaver, who became a social-media star when Zoom footage of a chaotic Handforth Parish Council meeting went viral. Others include, I assume, Chewbacca Mom, that guy who appeared on a BBC news panel by mistake, and Emu, but without Rod Hull, so he just lies there on the desk, all floppy and still, just as he will eventually do on the backbenches.
These ordinary folk are split into two parties. The parties choose a “prime minister” and are tasked with coming up with an education policy. This involves a short brainstorm with no data or input from educational professionals followed by a back-of-an-envelope calculation about how to pay for it. They come up with: have class outside. And: coding lessons. I don’t doubt for a second that that’s how contemporary British politicians come up with their guff, but this is surely the type of political chicanery that Campbell and Warsi want to get away from.
Each team is then dispatched to launch their policy to real journalists who write about it in fake papers before delivering a speech to “real” people (or as real as anyone who has time to do this can be) who then vote for their favourite “prime minister”. I’m surprised the loser doesn’t get slimed, Tiswas style (not Daily Mail style, which is just customary in politics). Instead, in this episode, they’re just sent home.
I’m not saying that having two rival governments competing with different policy platforms would necessarily be any more chaotic than Liz Truss’s cabinet, but there are a lot of problems with this set-up.
First, real politics involves both a ground-up, grassroots element and a civil service filled with institutional experts. Both are absent here. Second, British people don’t vote for prime minister. Britain has a parliamentary system, not a presidential one. Do they want a presidential one? The problem with making dubious things popular on TV is that, before long, the general public wants it — Lolo balls, Crocs, investment properties, Boris Johnson, Harry Styles.
Campbell and Warsi believe that their programme will be educational. I’m with Neil Postman, who believed television’s attempts to educate entertainingly can end up distorting reality. And I think democratic politics is being idealised here as a form of top-down whimsy rather than a pragmatic compromise in which all participate. This show is all about this misunderstanding.
“I have some good ideas which might not be popular but which I’m pretty sure are right,” says a marketing consultant in sunglasses, apparently unaware that we have loads of ideas. We’re coming down with ideas. I’ve had several this morning alone: shoes for dogs, an app that makes cheese, Police Academy 8, a television programme in which Alastair Campbell visits Iraq.
And society has plenty of good ideas we’re just failing to implement: state-built social housing, a functional health system for all, progressive taxation in which the rich pay a higher premium for their privilege. We’re not lacking ideas. We’re lacking competence, consequences and care. Maybe they get into that in later episodes. Right now, if this show posits anything, it’s that people who want to be leaders are a self-selecting group who aren’t hugely different from reality-television stars.
To cut through that conspiracy of privilege and narcissism, maybe we should just pick our leaders randomly, like jury duty. And Alastair Campbell could take all his political expertise to Iraq, where, for various reasons, they might need it.