A strange phenomenon occurred in the early days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership which has never been spoken about.
Virtually overnight a dramatic shift took place in the narrative of the mainstream press, which in 2015 went from portraying frontbench Labour MPs as a bunch of mediocre losers who had handed David Cameron’s unpopular Conservatives a majority to lauding them as political masterminds.
As soon as Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership contest Labour MPs who the press had in the months prior described as complete no-hopers were suddenly strategic brains he couldn’t possibly do without.
One MP benefited from this sudden tonal reorientation more than any other. Step forward Michael Dugher.
Fresh from serving in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet, which lost an election despite being huge favourites, Dugher’s political nous soon saw him in the driving seat of Andy Burnham’s leadership campaign, which also started out that contest as favourites only to get whopped by a 200-1 outsider.
In normal times the pace with which Dugher chalked up losses might have seen him labelled a failure, or mocked and denigrated by a ruthless press. But these were no normal times. A socialist was now leading the Labour party, and in true Manichean spirit any enemy of socialism was a friend to the right-wing tabloids.
Out of this new relationship between Dugher and the press lobby blossomed deferential coverage alongside running criticisms of shadow cabinet meetings. Eventually Corbyn decided the constant undermining wasn’t to the party’s benefit, so Dugher was sacked.
This sequence of events birthed the most iconic off-the-record briefing of the Corbyn era. “You start a war with Dugher,” tweeted then Sun political editor Harry Cole, with a picture of a text direct from a Labour source, “and there’s only going to be one winner, and that’s Michael… Corbyn has made a huge error today.”
If Dugher was convinced of his own invincibility then, it should come as no surprise. For the first time in his political career he appeared immune from press criticism: the thorn in the side of the Corbyn leadership, the “straight talking” bloke who was going to bring the whole thing down.
There was no way the press could now ridicule Dugher without tacitly implying Corbyn was sensible to sack him. It was Dugher vs Corbyn, a two-horse race, and the media were stuck with the donkey.
Unfortunately, as Arsene Wenger once said, “when you give success to stupid people, it makes them more stupid.” Dugher responded to his newfound political impregnability by becoming the party’s brave dissident voice on Twitter. “Stop criticising Corbyn’s slow response,” he would say, “it takes time for Seamas [sic] to draft a statement by the Kremlin, Stop the War and the Morning Star.” It was political comedy club and the media were the only audience.
In early 2017 Michael Dugher’s sarcastic wit reached its high point. Labour’s poor poll numbers were a “remarkable achievement,” he told the New Statesman. “We’ve gone backwards among every demographic, every region of the country… Hats off to Jeremy and Seumas, Diane and John. That’s pretty special.”
In another example of his renowned political acumen, Dugher then became one of the high-profile MPs to step down before the 2017 general election, with an implied prediction of a bloodbath awaiting the party. Labour, he said, was no longer “in touch with working class people” – each of whom had been reading his tweets and finding themselves in agreement.
Unfortunately, without Dugher’s regular interventions to guide them, they lost their way and ended up voting for Corbyn and Labour just two months later. No longer able to serve the people of Barnsley by relaying sarky observations to right-wing newspapers, Dugher instead devoted himself to criticising my campaign against Fixed Odds Betting Terminals.
Dubbing a reformed gambling addict “Roulette Boy” was the last punchline of Michael Dugher’s one man show. But instead of the warm embrace of Britain’s commentariat, the crowd turned. “Is that appropriate, Michael?” they asked. “Fuck off!” came the characteristic response from the no-nonsense straight-talker. And just to emphasise the point, he said it again and again and again. The joke hadn’t landed. The audience filtered out. The show was over.
But I will miss Dugher. Not the slurs predicated on my struggle with addiction. Nor the tedious attacks on Corbyn. But the comedy value in the character he portrayed, even going as far as posing for a photo while hanging out the window of a car like Harry Redknapp on transfer deadline day.