Peter Brookes probably doesn’t have many friends in Parliament. But he probably doesn’t care, either. He’s having too much fun at their expense. It is his job to mock politicians – to emphasise middle age paunches, bald patches and unfortunate features, and to highlight the turns of phrase and quirky personality traits that politicians try to disguise by spending a fortune on PR people.
Few in the halls of power have escaped his TH Saunders paper and Pelikan black ink. Berlusconi has appeared as a burlesque dancer, Ed Miliband as one half of Wallace & Gromit, and Tony Blair as Marlon Brando.
“I know there are likes and dislikes amongst those who rule us about what I have done. I don’t know about Tony Blair actually but I do about the current lot, without wanting to say what’s what…one actually absolutely hates what I do, and the other is far less censorious.”
Brookes is reluctant to expand, but he grins when I mention his famous “Cleggers” series, in which a public school era Cameron is seen ordering lacky Cleggers around – resplendent in tartan waistcoats and tailcoats.
“I have been criticized loads for those cartoons – Cleggers and all that…because Cameron, I mean Cameron is very touchy about that sort of aspect of things, yeah, he doesn’t like the idea of the Bullingdon sort of thing being brought up again. I know I get a lot of complaints [about them], which makes me want to do it more.”
Brookes finds it all quite entertaining. Winner of Cartoonist of the Year at this year’s Press Awards, he worked for the New Statesman and the Spectator before moving to The Times in 1992. His routine is surprisingly similar to journalists in the news room that sits one floor above his “glass box” office at News International HQ. He attends the daily conference along with the suited and booted editors, quietly mulling over who on the news agenda he is going to caricature that day.
Brookes is given a pretty free reign over what he does: “I don’t take any notice of the paper’s political stance. Frankly I think you’re better off going against the grain of what the paper does, although you can’t do that as a general policy, because the paper you work on doesn’t take a knee jerk reaction to specific party ways, we don’t. I think for me -the biggest example of it was Iraq, right from the word go I said I was against it and saw it as being total and absolute nonsense.”
At the same time as the hacking scandal, famine was spreading across Somalia and yet splashed on every paper every day were pictures of Rebecca Brookes’ hair. In typical fashion, Brookes produced a cartoon mocking the ridiculous loss of priorities, drawing a Somalian child with a starved swollen belly saying: “I’ve had a belly full of phone hacking.” He did several along those lines, and fifty complaints were made to the Press Complaints Commission. “There was a right old fuss about that, complaints to the PCC, and all sorts. And I just didn’t see it in any sense.
“Stuff is happening that is just so much more crucial, wars here there and everywhere, governments toppling, the Middle East.” Brookes’ role is to make a point by mocking. He doesn’t take a party line on cartoons: “You’re in permanent opposition, to my mind there’s no real such thing as sort of cartoons in praise of, or cartoons congratulating, my nature’s that anyway, is the opposite of wanting to bolster anyone. You cringe from that sort of thing. So it’s always critical.”
Most striking is Brookes’ fascination with people. He isn’t interested in clichés but gets under politicians’ skins by calling them out on embarrassing mistakes. Thank goodness, he doesn’t feel the need to be all politically correct and refuse to draw women. “Jacqui Smith – I drew her hundreds of times because she was always getting stuff wrong.”
For a long time his cartoon for the Saturday Times was one of his “Nature Notes” series, in which politicians are drawn as animals. Ken Livingstone is a reptile representing “Newt Labour” – Latin name Reddus Kennus; Peter Mandelson is a vampire bat – Mandelsonus veinglorious. Isn’t it easier to show crude bodily functions in animals – and make it easier to send up your subject? “Oh yes, I’ve done that, made use of that, but even that gets boring, too many bears crapping. I’ve sort of run out of animals to do it on.”
For the moment, the Cleggers series is taking centre stage. When we speak the Liberal Democrat conference is imminent. “The last week or so you’ve seen [Clegg] asserting himself a little bit – or saying he’s asserting himself”, Brookes finishes. Looks like he’ll be drawing tailcoats and black tie again before long.
Hard Times, containing a collection of Peter Brookes’ cartoons for The Times, is published by Biteback