The cosiness conspiracy: How the British media makes awful people into national treasures 

No one's too evil for a BBC documentary series or a show on LBC

For people of a certain age, ‘Were you up for Portillo?’ — the moment when then hated cabinet minister Michael Portillo was flung from Parliament by the insurgent Labour candidate Stephen Twigg on election night 1997 — is like a low-rent ‘Where were you when JFK was shot?’ question. 

But for people who weren’t old enough to be conscious of that election, who grew up during the years when Tony Blair went from ‘things can only get better’ to ‘things barely distract us from the illegal wars’, the idea that Portillo was such a visceral hate figure, Big Brother’s Nasty Nick with a parliamentary majority, might seem unthinkable. Why? Because the cosiness conspiracy turned Portillo into a cuddly national treasure. 

Television and radio executives are the architects of the cosiness conspiracy. They take politicians who were divisive in government and give them platforms to be human and cuddly and benign. This doesn’t mean the politicians in question stop being utter bastards; just that they are allowed to cloak that under an interest in baking, history, or endlessly riding on trains. 

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Portillo’s big break in becoming a cuddly national treasure was a double act with Diane Abbott on This Week with Andrew Neil, but it’s trains that have really locked him into a profile as ‘generally lovely man,’ rather than right-wing headbanger who supported Margaret Thatcher no matter what. Since 2009, there’s barely been a time when Portillo wasn’t primping himself on a historic train in a multi-part TV series.

Amber Rudd is now benefitting from the same slide from controversial -- if not outright disgusting -- to cosy, thanks to a bizarre double act with her daughter, Flora Gill, and a contract to co-present a TimesRadio show with her. The pair regularly indulge in what increasingly looks like pre-scripted ‘banter’ about Flora’s sex life on Twitter, a spectacle of pure uncut embarrassment that isn’t as effective in distracting the world from Rudd’s involvement in the Windrush scandal than they seem to think. 

The black Britons who were deported to countries where many of them have never lived or even visited have not been given a ‘second chance’ but Rudd, thanks to her daughter’s willingness to talk about seemingly anything, is getting a lucrative second act in public life as a foil for her offspring’s filter-free sex chatter. It’s the cosiness conspiracy with a side-order of creepiness. 

There is no politician so odious that they cannot be remade by the cosiness conspiracy. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s future presenting programmes about the Victorians is assured. The Clash sang, “If Adolf Hitler was here today, they’d send a limousine anyway…” on White Man In Hammersmith Palais. Now we need an update, “If Adolf Hitler was here today, they’d give him an LBC phone-in show anyway…”