Brex Factor: Blonde ambition - Esther McVey’s weird telly years
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In this week's Brex Factor we go digging through the archives to a past that this Tory leadership contestant doesn't want to talk about.
"Insanely ambitious, with absolutely no humility whatsoever." "Pretty awful." "Hard and ambitious even in those days." Just some of the rave reviews garnered by Esther McVey from a handful of people who worked with the Tory leadership candidate in her previous life as a television presenter.
The Liverpudlian has been all over the media in the past week: on TalkRadio announcing her candidacy to replace Theresa May, in the Daily Express with a risible column claiming the Conservatives are "the natural party of the working class", winning an endorsement in the Daily Telegraph from Tory MPs Gary Streeter and Ben Bradley while taking time to co-sign a letter leaked to the Times in which senior Tories demanded that the prime minister should not concede a customs union in negotiations with Labour.
All McVey needs now is to dislodge Nigel Farage from his permanent seat on every television politics show and she might even overtake David Lidington to become 16th favourite in the leadership stakes, where she currently languishes behind no-hopers like Andrea Leadsom, Philip Hammond and James 'Misnomer' Cleverly at 50/1. For those who do not understand betting odds, this means that if you put one pound on Esther to be the next Tory leader, you will lose one pound.
In the meantime, those of us who feel there is simply not enough of the Tatton MP on our screens can head to YouTube, which is scattered with precious fragments of the days when those she aspired to overtake included Jayne Middlemiss and Gail Porter rather than Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer.
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Look carefully enough and you will find portents of McVey's future political career. On CBBC in the early 1990s, she served as a warm-up act for Muppet Babies, prefiguring the 2018 Conservative conference in Birmingham where she opened for Dominic Raab and Chris Grayling. Appearing opposite a ventriloquist's dummy on Channel 5's misfiring teatime show 5's Company in 1997 surely prepared her for years of benefit-slashing brainstorms with the wooden, unfeeling Iain Duncan Smith as part of his DWP team.
By 2002, the same channel's naturism documentary Stark Naked was giving Esther up-close experience of working with tits, dicks and arseholes which would prove vital when she became a Tory candidate three years later.
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Another Channel 5 clip, from the thankfully forgotten karaoke/quiz hybrid Night Fever in 1999, features McVey dancing slinkily to Bananarama's Venus with Barry from EastEnders. This would not be the only tangle with buffoonish men for Esther, whose fiancé is Shipley MP Philip Davies. His greatest hits include writing to Trevor Phillips, then head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to ask: "Is it offensive to black up or not, particularly if you are impersonating a black person?.. Why it is so offensive to black up your face, as I have never understood this?" Bradley, who supports her for the Tory leadership, was forced to apologise last year after old comments emerged in which he advised jobless men to have vasectomies in order to stop Britain "drowning in a vast sea of unemployed wasters".
Perhaps the key Esther McVey clip from those available on YouTube is one from her GMTV days, which shows her in Spain on the set of a Martine McCutcheon pop video in 1999. During their interview, McCutcheon is wearing a low-cut, strappy, black bustier top. And so, oddly, is McVey. "She's got everyone looking at her already with these," quips the singer/actress, gesturing at Esther's embonpoint. Similar determination not to be upstaged which led to McVey's exit from the cabinet last year, after a Brexit-related row in which she was reportedly tearful, "emotional" and "aggressive towards the prime minister"? Does that also fuel her run for a job which her record of blunders and outward absence of empathy suggests she is patently unfit to do?
Despite her chosen careers (and notwithstanding her current thumping majority of 14,787 in George Osborne's old Tatton seat), McVey does seem to have a problem connecting with people. Noting her lack of chemistry with co-presenters during her TV years, one person who worked with McVey told The New European: "I was unsure why they'd booked her. I was guessing primarily for her accent. And the fact that she told people she was clever."
He continued: "She was pretty arrogant, behaved as if people should have a clue who she was when no-one did. She struggled with her words and blamed other people for her mistakes. I've met a lot of wannabe TV presenters in my time, and she was one of the ones with the least to recommend her. Zero charm. Zero insight."
A co-worker on 5's Company added: "She was generally unliked by the production team, mainly due to a fairly haughty manner; completely lacking in warmth and sincerity, in contrast to some of the other presenters. She had already presented primetime shows such as How Do They Do That? on BBC1 so in her mind she was very much the star name, and I suspect resented the fact that she was now doing daytime on a new channel that couldn't even reach some parts of the UK.
"She liked to think of herself as a journalist rather that a presenter and often said that her aim was to become an exec producer rather than stay presenting 'as that's where the real power is'. She would frequently run down to studio from her make up chair during rehearsals to tell the director what she thought he was doing wrong or to admonish hapless researchers on perceived flaws in their items.
"Generally, she was rather stand-offish and remote, but then again, many presenters are. Most of the friends I still have from that production are not fans of hers and I would cross the street to avoid meeting her."
One other former colleague says that "In those immortal words 'she rose without trace'. I thought she was not very bright so I was amazed she was selected as an MP." Though others who crossed her path recall a "nice girl" who was "actually very good", readers might conclude that when Esther swapped careers, TV's gain was politics' loss.
Yet those who believe that McVey's terrible record in government - where she has defended the bedroom tax, misled parliament over Universal Credit and been consistently wrong about Brexit - means she will never become prime minister should note her exchange with Brian Sewell on 5's Company in the period after the death of Princess Diana. The veteran art critic argued that money being earmarked for a permanent memorial should be spent on Diana's favourite charities instead.
"But many people want a memorial," McVey said. "But many people are idiots," replied Sewell. For that reason alone, don't write her off.