I am intrigued to meet the parliamentary sketch writer who accounted for Boris’s blond mop of a new fringe by imagining his girlfriend Carrie Symonds placing a bowl over the PM’s head and attacking it with “a pair of secateurs’”.
Henry Deedes is a waspish wit and can be placed in the Auberon Waugh school of political writing. On the page, he may be withering, scathing and Swiftian, but in real life he is surprisingly polite and self-effacing: he arrives at The Ivy on Kensington High Street in his gym kit, for which he apologises twice during our meeting.
Deedes is in his early 40s and is a relative newcomer to the lobby. He joined in February 2019, having written the Daily Mail’s City diary for several years. Taking over from Quentin Letts as the paper’s sketch writer, he had some reputation to follow.
He has stepped up well. It was said of Oscar Wilde that he was a great listener before he was a great talker. Deedes clearly enjoys politics – whether it’s TV debates or election hustings – as a spectator sport, or political theatre. Who else, for instance, could have likened Jo Swinson to the “friendly girl who really, really wants to be your best friend but who’ll rip all the stuffing out of your favourite teddy if you don’t let her”?
His colourful writing is full of the thrill of political pantomime. On Keir Starmer during the Withdrawal Bill debate: “His hair was arranged in an alarming Mr Whippy hairdo, reminiscent of former Tory home secretary Douglas Hurd in his pomp. He gave a decent-ish speech but oh isn’t he dreary? No vim, dear, no verve.”
On Johnson and Corbyn walking to hear the Queen’s Speech: “Boris bounded along, wearing his dappiest cocker spaniel smile. He turned to his opponent, his beady eyes oozing like ramekins of oeuf en gelée, and muttered what we must assume were a few cheery bon mots.” Corbyn’s reaction? “Stony silence. That whiskery face simply stared ahead, his hooded peepers as fierce and intense as a murderous cyborg. What a sad, sour little man he is.”
His verdict on the House of Lords: “crooks, cronies and assorted claret garglers”. The last may have applied to his late grandfather Lord (Bill) Deedes – more of a G&T bandit – who was elevated after editing the Daily Telegraph. He was the first person to be both a cabinet minister (Tory) and newspaper editor at the same time. Both politics and the ink trade run in his blood.
“I love elections,” Deedes concurs. He thought Labour’s manifesto was “kitchen sinky”, by which he means they were acting like a party with no chance of winning a majority. He recalls his first day. “Laura Kuenssberg came on the radio at 8.45am and said there was going to be this big announcement that some MPs had left Labour. Thank God I was listening. I realised I had just 40 minutes to get to Whitehall. So I jumped straight into a cab. It’s been non-stop ever since.”
In recent years, the death of satire has frequently been declared. Has the turmoil and panto drama made Deedes’ job easier or harder? “Much easier. If you start a new job, going in at the deep end is the best thing for you. It’s the quieter days that are the trickier ones.”
Is our parliamentary system fit for purpose? “You’re asking the lowly sketch writer!” he says. In fact, he believes that much of the heated atmosphere of recent events can be laid at John Bercow’s door. “We’re going to see a considerably different atmosphere in the chamber with Lindsay Hoyle sitting in the chair,” he says.
Has he taken inspiration from his famous grandfather? The question is swatted away. “I suppose,” he replies nonchalantly.
Does he have strong political opinions? “No, I really don’t. I’m not a very political person at all – I’ve voted for all the main political parties at some form of election.” This detachment has given strength to his ribald and satirical journalism, which thankfully has been getting more caustic by the month.
This year will see him sharpening his quill for the 2020 US election. Yet Michael Bloomberg is unbearably dull compared to Trump. And the next Labour leader? Maybe Rebecca Long Bailey but he will miss the “geriatric vigour” of Jeremy Corbyn.
His take on the mood on the defeated Labour benches on 17 December? “You could have carved the atmosphere on Labour’s front bench with a busted teaspoon. Never had there been such a sullen heap of corpses. Each propped up in silence, alone, awkwardly trapped in pained thought like patients in a dentist’s waiting room.” Vintage Deedes.