Sketchy-wetch: Russell Brand meets the MPs
Ladies and gentlemen, we need look no further. In Russell Brand, Britain has just found its next prime minister.
An improbable suggestion, you might think. But this morning Brand revealed he has what it takes to sweep boring old Westminster aside. Yes, he's an oddball, looking and sounding utterly different to your everyday backbencher. But the basic skills needed to be a success at the ballot box were all there. This one, the talent scouts of Whitehall will be whispering, has got what it takes.
This was not immediately apparent when proceedings began shortly after 11:30 this morning. When humans first come into contact with alien life the meeting will be something like what transpired then. "Please send the extraterrestrial in," the UFO committee chair Keith Vaz will say. There will be a brief delay, as this particular alien is always fashionably late. "Does anyone know where the extraterrestrials are?" Vaz will ask irritably. The atmosphere will be tense, palpably full of excitement. Finally, after a brief delay, comes the big entry.
In walked Brand, surprisingly tall, like lots of celebrities. He walked like someone who is incredibly cool – again, utterly alien to life in Westminster. He wore a long flowing coat, to match his long flowing black hair. His eyes twinkled with amusement. The staid MPs of the home affairs committee looked on, agape. "Hello," he told the police officer guarding the entrance to the room. "Hello," he said, all friendly and meek, addressing the room at large. The political world does not usually see specimens like this. MPs and officials alike were open-mouthed.
The sense of shock at this very different way of doing things did not fade throughout the 30 minutes in which Brand and the head of his rehab centre gave evidence. Vaz is not accustomed, when he tells witnesses that we're running out of time, to being told: "But time is infinite, Keith."
That's another thing: all this first-name business is, for an MP, truly staggering. At one stage he called Conservative MP Michael Ellis "mate". In parliament, in a formal meeting of the home affairs select committee, this is simply not the done thing.
But then nor is it the done thing to wear a vest with holes in it, or to refer to one's fellow witness as having "a criminal record as long as your arm", or to quote "the great Tupac Shakur".
Nor are celebrity confessionals an orthodox part of normal select committee life. "I was sad, lonely, melancholy, distracted," Brand said. Was this a chatshow or an evidence session? The problem, we were told was Brand had been suffering from a "spiritual malady" which needed fixing. "You were arrested roughly 12 times," Vaz said, trying to sound neutral. Brand, grinning, replied: "It was rough, yes!"
The only politician to dared take on Brand's arguments about the need for drugs to be legalised and for them to be considered a health problem, rather than a criminal one, was Tory stalwart Michael Ellis. He suggested that – unlike other health problems – drug-taking was in part self-induced. "Michael, I'm very glad you asked me that question," Brand replied, before offering up the sort of obfuscation of which David Cameron would be proud.
Ellis wondered whether Brand believed in the carrot and stick approach, then? "I don't think there needs to be a carrot or a stick," Brand replied, dismissively. "Both of those things are bizarre met-a-phors." He had soon smoked out Ellis' agenda. "You can tell which party he's in!" he observed to the world at large.
This was a man, it was by now clear, who was prepared to tell it like it is. So when Vaz mentioned that his committee had visited Colombia to see first-hand the impact which drugs can have on producing countries, Brand utterly dismissed the relevance of their fact-finding mission. "The consequences in the nation of origin make no difference," he declared, explaining that nothing matters much to drug users apart from getting their next fix. Even whether what they're doing is breaking the law or not. "To a drug addict, the legal status is irrelevant," Brand said. "At worst it's an inconvenience."
A controversial message, perhaps, but one which was conveyed with sublime effectiveness. Brand played this occasion like a maestro of politics. He was permanently on-message, banging home the phrase "abstinence-based recovery" like a mantra. Afterwards I managed to grab him for a quick question, to which he would reply with just those words. "The important thing is abstinence-based recovery," he said. "I think as many people as possible should direct people towards abstinence-based recovery." Got the message? Everyone in the committee room had.
As well as having a clear campaigning slogan, Brand the politician was also a great leveller. Connecting with the ordinary person was Brand's strong suit. He was constantly looking behind him to give knowing little looks to the members of the public sitting behind. He warned MPs there was a risk, if they persisted with this banging-people-up-for-taking-drugs approach, that "people in parliament look out of touch".
Best of all, though, he has the gift of the gab. What Brand referred to, in fact, as "my propensity for verbosity". Politicians are often dismissed as comedians, but this comparison is very rarely made the other way around.
It was Vaz who came closest to peering under the bonnet of Brand's brand. The celebrity claimed that he had no control over how the "cipher of my image is used to represent in the media". He claimed celebrities were "insignificant", which is why the public were so interested in them. Yet this was a celebrity using his profile to accomplish political aims with ease.
It was not until close to the end of the session that Brand revealed the depth of his understanding not just of his own trade, but also of that of the people questioning him. What mattered most, he explained, was "the difference between reality and authenticity". Being able to blur the differences between these at will is the ultimate skill of a politico. Brand, it was very clear, was the best politician in the room.