All the Wildest Moments from Past Election Campaigns, Ranked

We look back, wistfully, at John Prescott punching a protestor, Cleggmania, Bigotgate and Ed Miliband's disastrous run-in with a bacon sandwich.
November 12, 2019, 8:45am
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Images via Wikipedia Commons, YouTube and Channel 4. Composite by VICE staff. 

Like a particularly tenacious bout of Weill’s disease, British general elections seem to come round faster every time. Because they actually do come round faster every time. We’ve had elections in 2015, 2017 and here we go again in 2019 – that’s three separate governments in less time than it takes to finish primary school. This is great for people who love the adrenaline rush of voting, love the walk to the polling station in a Cif-smelling community hall, love knowing that this is a right that literally millions of people across the world have died in order to achieve.

It has also afforded us some of the wildest, most ill-conceived campaign moments since Hansard began. From Tony Blair’s reelection in 2001, the fungal growth of social media, television debates, ideological splintering within every major political party and 24-hour news has turned turned the campaign trail into a boiling soup of mishaps and dead-eyed stunts. And as former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s disastrous 2015 run-in with a bacon sandwich proves, politicians are still no closer to being able to eat like normal people.

So, let’s take a quick log flume ride through some of the funniest and most unfortunate events of the last 20 years of British election campaigns.

2001: JOHN PRESCOTT PUNCHES AN EGG-THROWING PROTESTOR

Known as the ‘quiet landslide’, the 2001 election saw Labour hold on to 413 of the 418 seats they’d won in the previous general election. Hope was high; the government had introduced the minimum wage, had cut NHS waiting times and were still two years away from invading Iraq. And yet, how easily the whole campaign could have been derailed when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott punched a mullet-wearing, egg-throwing man in Rhyll, square on the jaw in full view of both television cameras and the voting public.

Watching the punch now, on YouTube, feels like unearthing some dusty artifact from a bygone era, and not just because of the mullets. This is a man, a politician, in a suit, punching another man, with hair like a mud landslide and yet somehow, it didn’t cost Labour the election. At a time when one ill-advised tweet can risk your entire political career, how this walking armchair in a tie managed to ride out such an incident seems remarkable.

Verdict: 4 bacon sandwiches/5. I mean, he literally punched a man in the face.

2001: WILLIAM HAGUE LOVES PINTS

And how did Tory party leader William Hague attempt to stem the apparently unstoppable flow of support to Labour in the 2001 election? He’d tried riding down a log flume wearing a baseball cap with his own name on it a few years before to no avail and so, appealing to the lads-lads-lads-get-them-in-while-I-get-nostalgic-about-currency-oo-are-ya-love-a-minibus-tops-off demographic, he told GQ in an interview that as a lad (between 15 and 21), he’d drunk 14 pints a day while ferrying crates to pubs across South Yorkshire for his family’s soft drinks business. Embarrassingly for Hague, the claim was quickly challenged when the Guardian interviewed Terry Glossop, 47, assistant manager of the Angel, one of Rotherham's oldest pubs, who said: “Some of the old boys have been coming in here for donkey's years and no one can remember Hague coming in for as much as a half of lager.”

Verdict: 2 bacon sandwiches/5. No Prime Minister should lie about the sacred art of downing pints.

2005: CHARLES KENNEDY GETS ‘BABY BRAIN’

In many ways, 2005 was a calmer election campaign compared to years past. The Tories launched a poster that called Tony Blair a liar; George Galloway spent a lot of time in Bethnal Green telling the press that Labour had blood on their hands and Charles Kennedy became the first male politician to be accused of ‘baby brain.’ When Kennedy was unable to answer questions about his own manifesto on the day it was launched, he ended up explaining that his wife had given birth just 24 hours earlier and neither had slept since.

Perhaps the most noteworthy campaign moment, however, was when eight Greenpeace activists climbed onto John Prescott’s roof in Hull and installed two solar panels, as well as hanging out a banner that said: “Oi, two jags! Hit targets, not voters” when Prescott’s wife Pauline was at home alone. This lead the Deputy Prime Minister – who famously had two Jaguar cars – to punch back in a statement saying: “Wives shouldn’t be there for terrorising.”

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Scroll forward 14 years and politicians are still, it seems, more than happy to attack environmental activists instead of relinquishing the donations and financial influence of the fossil fuel lobby – companies from the oil, coal, gas, aeronautical and other big polluting industries who resist the importance of addressing climate change and investment in green energy.

Verdict: 1 bacon sandwich/5. Greenpeace probably don’t eat bacon sandwiches anyway. Still, poor old Pauline, freaking out about who was up on her roof.

2010: BIGOTGATE

Ah, the poorly hung parliament of 2010, what a ham-fisted pleasure that was. We’ll never truly know what lost it for Labour – the Iraq War, the 2008 global financial crash, voter apathy. But it is probably safe to say that Gordon Brown calling Gillian Duffy “just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour,” did not help.

To give her quote in full, Duffy told Brown as he campaigned in Rochdale: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants but all these Eastern Europeans flocking in – where are they coming from?” I mean, Eastern Europe would be my first and probably only guess. After talking to Duffy, Brown failed to remove his mic and so was heard, later, getting into his car and telling an aide that “that was a disaster – they should never have put me with that woman.”

In retrospect, it’s sort of amazing that calling someone who complains about “all these Eastern Europeans” a bigot had the effect that it did. When you consider that the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has described gay men as ‘bum boys’, likened women who wear burqas and niqabs to ‘letterboxes’, written about ‘picanninies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, told voters that ‘voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts’ and wrote that ‘the real problem with the Islamic world is Islam,’ bigotry wouldn’t seem to be something that British people seem unduly concerned about.

The irony is that in today’s deeply divided, aggressive, tribal political landscape, if a politician called an older, white woman complaining about immigrants a bigot, half the country would agree, while the other half would call for them to be hung. Just this week, the Conservative business minister, Nadhim Zahawi told Channel 4 news that he “doesn’t know” if Jeremy Corbyn would shoot rich people – yes, shoot them – if he became Prime Minister. And the outcry was, well, less than Duffygate. The goalposts, it is fair to say, have moved.

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Verdict: 4 bacon sandwiches/5. God knows where we’d be now if Gordon Brown had just taken off that fucking microphone.

2010: CLEGGMANIA

2010 was also the election that saw Cleggmania break onto the scene like a pink and morally malleable pop sensation. During the UK’s first ever televised leaders’ debate, Nick Clegg stole the show, pulling such approval and attention from his fellow debaters that ‘I agree with Nick’ became a somewhat unlikely if short-lived catchphrase. Of course, just two years later, Clegg’s apology for going back on his promise to scrap tuition fees became a somewhat unlikely if short-lived pop hit with "Nick Clegg Says I'm Sorry (The Autotune Remix)" by Alex Ross, reaching number 143 in the UK Singles Chart.

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Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown take part in the UK's first television general election debate in April 2010. Photo via Alamy.

Luckily for us, televised leaders debates haven’t been wiped off the face of the political earth like undigested sweetcorn off a baby’s bum cheek and so this year, Jo Swinson will have her very own opportunity to talk to the nation on live telly. I, for one, cannot wait.

Verdict: 3 bacon sandwiches/5. If you’re choosing style over substance, maybe have more style.

2015: THE EDSTONE

Who doesn’t love an 8’6” slab of pure social justice in the morning? Britain, it would turn out. Ed Miliband’s £7,614 election tablet was, let’s be honest, one of the most embarrassing political incidents with a prop since he ate that bacon sandwich the year before.

On the 3rd of May 2015, when the chisel-hewn limestone manifesto was revealed to the public like an uncle pulling out photos of his kidney stone over Christmas lunch, the focus wasn’t on the pledges inscribed (“Higher living standards for working families; An NHS with the time to care; Controls on immigration; A country where the next generation can do better than the last; Homes to buy and action on rents,” for those of you keeping note) but the fact that, well, we were looking at a massive slab of rock in a car park in Hastings. Quickly dubbed ‘The EdStone’, the stunt became a national joke, with Boris Johnson calling it "some weird Commie slab" (put that on my dating profile).

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Verdict: 5 bacon sandwiches/5. An absolutely classic eight-foot tall limestone fuck-up.

2015: DAVID CAMERON FORGETS WHICH FOOTBALL TEAM HE SUPPORTS

2015 was also the year that Premier League wanker and Brexit midwife David Cameron apparently forgot which football team he supported. Sure, he got the colours right – West Ham instead of Aston Villa – but it still felt a bit like we were watching a man talk about how much he loved his beautiful wife, Fred Dibnah. Sometimes, little details like the name really matter.

But then, luckily for Cameron, everyone pretty much forgot about the football team thing because just four months later, it was revealed that he’d [allegedly] put his dick in a dead pig. Phew! Got out of that one, Dave.

Verdict: 3 bacon sandwiches/5. They're not for putting your dick in, though.

2017: THERESA MAY RUNS THROUGH FIELDS OF WHEAT

I mean, where to start. Theresa May’s salacious revelation that she’d once walked over a small patch of grain? Her £995 leather trousers in a Vogue photoshoot that looked like an advertorial for a particularly unattractive swingers night at a local Travelodge? Her gurning Cornish chips episode? Her refusal to take part in the television debate? All in all, the 2017 snap election, aimed at strengthening the Prime Minister’s hand (nobody likes a Prime Minister voted in by their party, rather than the public) was £140 million put into a blender and splattered across the wall.

Verdict: 5 bacon sandwiches/5. The fact that a woman so devoid of personality could produce this many gaffes is quite impressive, tbf.

Who knows what 2019 will bring, what cacophony of delight awaits us? Maybe Johnson will ride up the Thames on a giant inflatable pig before taking an actual shit on Tulip Siddiq. Maybe Jeremy Corbyn will run Michael Gove through with a pitchfork while tending to his allotment. Maybe Nicola Sturgeon will turn up to the leaders debate dressed as a freshwater loch and slowly dehydrate the other candidates into submission. Maybe the DUP will don chastity belts and scrawl their manifesto across a dug-up chunk of the M6? We simply cannot predict.

But one thing we can say for absolute certain: you still have time to register to vote and every single vote matters. You can register online up until 11.59PM on the 26th of November, so do it today. You can register as a student either at home or at your student address; you can register to vote if you’re 16 or over (although you can’t vote until you’re 18); you can register to vote in the election if you’re a UK citizen, an Irish citizen, an EU citizen or a citizen of a Commonwealth country with a permanent UK address.

So please, go to https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote and do it right now.

@NellFrizzell