‘People said it did in his career’: 33 pictures that defined British politicians | Photography

Ora Sawyers

There’s a type of hard-boiled political operative who always has the TV on in the office – sometimes more than one – permanently set to the news channels and almost always with the sound turned down. You might think that’s because they need quiet to work, and should something of interest appear, they would turn the volume up. But that’s not quite right. This brand of political professional believes that, when it comes to watching news coverage, the sound is all but irrelevant. What registers with people – with voters – are the pictures.

Does the leader look strong and in command? Or weak and hesitant? Is the candidate smiling, brimming with confidence? Or brooding, head in hands? Do they look natural, at ease with ordinary people – or gauche and awkward, a visiting alien from Planet Politician? For any of these judgments, you don’t need to hear the words. The image alone tells the story.

Many of the 33 pictures collected here do that for some of the best-known figures of recent British political history. Take the 1986 photograph of Margaret Thatcher in a tank. At the time, it was mocked aplenty. And you can see that, were someone else to try the same pose, or wear those same goggles, ridicule would be the first response. Indeed, when failed Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis attempted a similar stunt two years later, the resulting visual became an immediate TV ad – for his opponent. But for Thatcher it worked, making real what had, until then, been an imagining of the political cartoonists, casting Thatcher, she who had vanquished the Argentines in the Falklands war, as a latter-day Boudicca, a warrior queen, the Iron Lady.

The lasting images tend to work like that, crystallising, for good or ill, a view already loosely taking shape in the public – or at least the media’s – mind. Boris Johnson on a zip wire: national court jester, a lovable fool not to be judged by the harsher standards applied to more conventional politicians (an exceptionalism that Johnson exploited all the way to, and once inside, Downing Street). Ian Paisley: Ulster’s Dr No, the implacable naysayer and human incarnation of unionism’s perennial cry of “never surrender”. Nigel Farage: grinning John Bull and cavalier, ready to defy the nannying roundheads with their strictures against beer and fags. Theresa May and Ed Miliband: robot and geek, respectively, who, when attempting to do something spontaneous and recognisably human, such as dancing or eating a sandwich, seemed to struggle – sufficiently, in May’s case, to make the viewer blush with embarrassment.

Ed’s brother David was feted in the US as dashingly handsome – Vogue magazine confessed to a “crush” on the then foreign secretary – but at home the snappers decided he was a nerd, the last kid to be picked for the football team. An image of him holding a banana distilled that suspicion. Never mind that he’d merely complied with a request to hold up an item of fruit he had snatched for a breakfast-on-the-go at party conference: he could be cast as Mr Bean. Even if the camera never lies, it often fibs – serving to confirm a previously unarticulated, frequently unfair prejudice. And once it has, it sticks.

And yet, the reason why many of the pictures collected here have such enduring power is that they capture not only the essence – real or imagined – of an individual, but an entire era. Need to evoke the optimism of mid-1960s Britain? Here’s the Beatles alongside Harold Wilson, who together trigger that folk memory in a split second.

Meanwhile, some photographs are capable of more than simply prompting a recollection: they serve as wordless historical essays, silently explaining the causes, or anticipating the effects, of the epochal events of the last century or more.

Neville Chamberlain brandishing the Munich Agreement of 1938 – the infamous “piece of paper” he had signed along with Adolf Hitler, supposedly promising peace between Britain and Nazi Germany – is perhaps the most freighted example. We see not just a politician, a microphone and a cheering crowd, but the naivete of a British prime minister bent on compromising with – appeasing – an enemy who we, endowed with all the hindsight of history, know to have been fatefully, and fatally, unappeasable. We see a British public, still drained by a global war that had ended just two decades earlier, jubilantly applauding a prime minister who had won a promise by which Britons and Germans would agree “never to go to war with one another again”. We see the encouragement Munich, and its acquiescing in Hitler’s seizure of a chunk of Czechoslovakia, would give to the dictator, encouraging him in his ambition to conquer all of Europe – and the lethal consequences that would bring. All in a single snapshot.

Nye Bevan and the nurses – and their boy patient – beam with the hope and promise of the new postwar National Health Service, though surely no one in that picture guessed they were present at the creation of an institution that, in 75 years, would rival the monarchy as a core component of the country’s identity. A diminished Harold Macmillan, left hanging around waiting for Dwight Eisenhower, expresses neatly the changed geopolitical dynamic after the Suez crisis of 1956 that drove Anthony Eden from office, with the former empire now a supplicant, forced to defer to the new US superpower.

More recently, how eloquent is the picture of David Cameron and Nick Clegg during their rose garden love-in at Downing Street? Two men of similar age, class and education, full of excitement at the new coalition government they were launching – and already exhibiting the complacency that would prove to be the undoing of Cameron in particular. Just six years after the rose garden, Cameron would breezily inflict a referendum on the country that would do more damage to Britain’s standing than Suez – more, in fact, than any decision since Munich.

The folly of Brexit is caught in the morning-after picture from June 2016, where the furrowed brow of Michael Gove and the bowed head of Johnson could not hide their shock at their own victory. In an instant, they revealed that they had never seriously meant to win and were utterly unprepared for it. For Johnson, especially, the Brexit vote was only ever a move in a game, whose object was his own ascendancy in the Tory party and eventual installation in No 10. Suddenly, the pair understood that their jape had undone the work of a half century of cooperation and prosperity: Johnson was the guilty schoolboy, waiting for his punishment in the headteacher’s study. Just for a fleeting interlude, but long enough to be caught by the camera, the architects of Vote Leave had the grace to look ashamed of what they had done. It would not last.

So potent are these images, so enduring, that to look on them is to realise why politicians and their handlers persist in staging them. The photo-op is derided, but no political adviser is ever going to give it up. For every debacle – the Ed Stone, anyone? – there is a Thatcher-as-Boudicca or even, more quietly, the Sunaks lighting Diwali candles in Downing Street. Whatever his failures in the job, Rishi Sunak has earned his place in history as the first Briton of colour to head the government – and this image tells that story. The contrast with his predecessors – the procession of (mostly) men, all white, (mostly) in suits and ties – or in Palmerston’s case, frockcoat – is conveyed most swiftly in a picture.

Still, I suspect that the favourites for a lot of Guardian readers will be those images that were never intended. The look on Michael Portillo’s face that reveals the scale of the landslide defeat of 1997; Jacob Rees-Mogg’s languid recline on the Commons benches that screams own-the-place entitlement; the defiance of Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott – sombre in him, delighted in her – back when the number of MPs of colour could be counted on one hand. These were snatched moments that live on.

In some cases, they live on in us. We remember where we were when these events happened, what we felt when these pictures were new. (Not for nothing was a book about the 1997 election called Were You Still Up for Portillo?). They tell so many stories – and they do it without making a sound.

Picture captions by Gabrielle Schwarz, Naomi Larsson Piñeda and Will Dean

Margaret Thatcher in a tank

Jockel Finck, 1986

Photograph: Jockel Finck/AP

“Cutting a dash somewhere between Lawrence of Arabia and Isadora Duncan,” was how news presenter Jon Snow described Margaret Thatcher on a tank ride during a visit to the Nato training camp at Fallingbostel in West Germany in September 1986. The image of Thatcher riding in the Challenger, a flowing scarf tied around her hair, turned out to be a great PR move for the prime minister, whose popularity had been waning. When Liz Truss posed for photos in a tank during a visit to Estonia in 2021, some suggested the then foreign secretary was “channelling” Thatcher. Gabrielle Schwarz

Neville Chamberlain returns from Munich

Hulton-Deutsch/Getty Images, 1938

When Nazi Germany threatened to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938, a major conflict among the European powers seemed inevitable. A relieved crowd cheered as prime minister Neville Chamberlain exited his plane at the Heston Aerodrome on 30 September, brandishing a “non-aggression” pact co-signed with Adolf Hitler during crisis talks in Munich, where Britain, France and Italy had agreed to cede Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Germany. Hitler broke the Munich agreement when he occupied the rest of the country six months later; after he invaded Poland in September 1939, Chamberlain declared a state of war. The British prime minister – who was forced to step down in 1940 after a no-confidence vote reduced his majority – would for ever be associated with his previous policy of appeasement towards the Nazis, as emblematised by this photo. GS

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s slouch

Anna Turley/Twitter, 2019

The battle over a no-deal Brexit was one of the most consequential in recent UK parliamentary history, but you wouldn’t think it to look at this image of then leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg slouching on the bench during the emergency debate on 3 September 2019. With eyes barely open, his body language oozes boredom.

It was clear that crashing out of the trading bloc without a deal could have severe consequences for the economy, and Rees-Mogg’s pose was criticised for embodying entitlement and arrogance; there were calls in the chamber for him to “sit up”, while Green MP Caroline Lucas said, “his body language throughout this evening has been so contemptuous of this house and of the people”. He sat up straight only when the results of the vote came in: 21 Tory MPs had defied leader Boris Johnson by voting with the opposition to defeat the government, prompting Johnson to call for an early general election. Naomi Larsson Piñeda

Neil Kinnock’s not ‘all right’

Bill Rowntree, 1992

Photograph: Bill Rowntree/Mirrorpix/Alamy

It seemed like a good idea in theory. Labour – seemingly on the brink of a first general election win since October 1974 – held a huge, US-style rally in Sheffield in April 1992, a week before election day. Party leader Kinnock arrived on stage to great fanfare before yelling “We’re all right!” three times, to great ridicule (though Kinnock himself later said the phrase was: “Well, all right! … in the manner of a rock’n’roll singer”). The moment would come to haunt Kinnock – and define his surprise loss to John Major’s Conservatives.

Three years later in a television interview, he said it cost him the election: “This roar hit me, and for a couple of seconds I responded to it; and all of the years in which I’d attempted to build a fairly reserved, starchy persona – in a few seconds they slipped away.”

In 2004, US Democratic candidate Howard Dean, riding high on a wave of young online support would pay a sort of tribute to Kinnock by tanking his own presidential campaign with a very weird howl of defiance in Iowa – soon known, infamously, as “the Dean Scream”. Will Dean

Churchill: The Roaring Lion

Yousuf Karsh, 1941

Photograph: Yousuf Karsh/Camera Press

This portrait of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh is said to be one of the most reproduced images in the history of photography – Britons will probably recognise it from the £5 note. In one image, called The Roaring Lion, Karsh captured the essence of the person we understand Churchill to be: militant, determined, dangerously powerful.

It “captures a moment in history”, says Jerry Fielder, director of Karsh’s estate. It was 30 December 1941; Britain was in the midst of war, and Churchill had just given a rousing speech at the Canadian parliament, where he retorted “some chicken, some neck” to Vichy France leader Marshal Pétain’s threat that “England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.”

The photograph demonstrates Karsh’s skills. The story goes that Churchill had not been informed that Karsh was there to take a picture of him. After finishing his speech – which you can see in the prime minister’s pocket – Churchill entered the speaker’s chamber, where Karsh had set up his lights and camera. He reluctantly assented to a photograph, with Karsh having to act quickly to capture the irate politician. “He had that sense of timing for the moment, and captured something truthful,” Fielder says.

Karsh later recalled that he struggled to photograph Churchill, whose face was obscured by smoke from his cigar. “I stepped toward him and, without premeditation but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.” NLP

Tony Blair and George W Bush

Luke Frazza, 2001

Photograph: Luke Frazza/EPA

The seeds of the special relationship between Tony Blair and George Bush were sown on their first meeting at Camp David in February 2001, just a month after the US president’s inauguration. “Tony put the charm offensive on me and it worked,” Bush told a press conference afterwards. Here, the two leaders are pictured smiling during a stroll with Bush’s dog Spot. In 2010, the writer Blake Morrison deemed this image as his photograph of the decade. “9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan: they’re all prefigured in this shot,” he wrote. “The warning signs were all there, if only we’d seen them.” GS

Harold Macmillan waits to greet Dwight Eisenhower

Jane Bown, 1959

In this photograph taken by the veteran Observer photographer Jane Bown, Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, waits to greet US president Dwight Eisenhower on his arrival in the UK as part of a European tour in 1959. Just three years beforehand, the then prime minister Anthony Eden’s handling of the Suez crisis which saw Britain, along with France and Israel, invade Egypt in an attempt to recover control of the Suez Canal – had severely damaged the US and UK’s “special relationship” because Eisenhower had strongly opposed military action. Macmillan, who replaced Eden on his resignation, already had a rapport with Eisenhower since they had met in north Africa during the second world war, and spent his time as PM working to rebuild relations with the US. NLP

The Portillo moment

Kevin Lamarque, 1997

Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

At around 3am on 2 May 1997, Conservative MP Michael Portillo lost his seat in a shock result, dashing his hopes of becoming party leader and signalling a Labour landslide . The 1997 election ended 18 years of Tory rule, ushering in the decade of New Labour. This moment, captured by photographer Kevin Lamarque, has come to symbolise a sudden, unexpected shift in someone’s political fortunes. As Portillo said himself: “My name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public.” NLP

Nancy Astor with Winston Churchill

Alamy, 1941

Nancy Astor, the first female politician to take her seat in the House of Commons, had a fractious relationship with Winston Churchill. “If I were married to you, I would put poison in your coffee,” she is often quoted as saying to him. “If I were married to you, I’d drink it,” he apparently replied. (The veracity of the exchange is disputed.) But during this visit to Plymouth to inspect damage after heavy bombing in the city, the prime minister and the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton – in the black hat – put their differences aside. GS

Norman Tebbit after the Brighton hotel bombing

AP, 1984

In the early hours of 12 October 1984, IRA member Patrick Magee detonated a bomb at the Grand hotel in Brighton, which was hosting the Conservative party conference. The intended target, prime minister Margaret Thatcher, survived, but five other people were killed and dozens injured. One of those injured was the then trade secretary Norman Tebbit, pictured here being stretchered out of the rubble. Tebbit’s wife, Margaret, was left paralysed by the attack. The politician – an uncompromising rightwinger known for his staunch anti-immigrant views and notorious “cricket test” of loyalty to the country – had been tipped as Thatcher’s successor, but he resigned from the cabinet after the 1987 election so he could care for his wife. He entered the Lords in 1992, where he was a critic of the party’s shift to the centre ground under David Cameron; he retired from the house in March 2022. NLP

Labour party Black Sections

PA, 1988

In this photo from the 1988 Labour party conference, during a debate around Black representation in the party, MPs Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott stand with their arms raised, while Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz sit behind them. “[We] are literally and metaphorically standing for something,” says Abbott. “Taking a stand, as much as it annoys the leadership and upsets the status quo, also has the capacity to inspire others.”

In the 80s, these trailblazing politicians and others, frustrated by the lack of progress within Labour, led campaigns for racial justice. There was at the time little support for minority politicians; in 1983, for example, only one Black Labour parliamentary candidate had been selected, and that was for a safe Tory seat. By 1987, there were four Black MPs leading the fight against discrimination in the party and wider politics.

Boateng recalls that he, Abbott, Grant and Vaz would sit together “to highlight a unity of purpose”. “We had agreed beforehand to stand up in twos so the party managers were forced to call us to make the same point at least twice. Black representation and racial justice were works in progress,” he says. “We were not going to be silenced.”

Abbott adds: “The fight then was over Black self-representation in the Labour party. We were vilified for attempting to create Black Sections within the party, but they were necessary to address the party’s abysmal record on racism and other issues.” Abbott argues that Labour has “gone backwards” under its current leadership, pointing to the 2022 Forde report that revealed a “hierarchy of racism” within the party. She says: “We continue to take a stand.” NLP

John Prescott’s punch

Shutterstock, 2001

A few hours after the Labour party launched their manifesto in May 2001, John Prescott was on the campaign trail in Rhyl in north Wales, when a protester threw an egg at him. The deputy PM immediately socked him with a left hook.

The moment has followed Prescott throughout his career. “People won’t remember me for my 40 years in parliament,” he told the Radio Times in 2017. “Instead, I’ll be remembered for 40 seconds of my life: the time I thumped that bloke in the street.” The punch became a symbol of his sometimes volatile personality – “John is John,” Tony Blair said in the press conference the morning after. Although the next few hours were filled with panic for the governing party, who feared it could sink Prescott’s career and even the election, there was no lasting damage. Labour went on to win handsomely. NLP

Keir Hardie at a peace rally

Hulton-Deutsch/Getty Images, 1914

In August 1914, two days before war was declared, Keir Hardie spoke at a peace rally in London’s Trafalgar Square, issuing a statement that read: “There is no time to lose. Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!” Born in Scotland, Hardie began his career in politics by establishing a union at his colliery and leading the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners – he had been working in coalmines since the age of 10. Hardie later became a founder of the Labour party and one of the first two Labour parliamentarians (the other was Richard Bell). He vehemently opposed war, supporting conscientious objectors, and died in 1915 while attempting to organise a pacifist general strike. NLP

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove

Stefan Rousseau, 2016

Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

It was the morning after the Brexit referendum. Vote Leave was unexpectedly victorious – the mood of the campaign group’s press conference should have been jubilant. But when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove appeared at the podium, they struck an undeniably sombre tone. In this image, the two politicians are captured with their eyes cast down and their brows furrowed. The photographer, Stefan Rousseau, remembers the moment clearly: “They just looked like they were thinking, ‘What have we done?’ There was that strong slogan – Take Back Control – and yet they both looked like they’d lost control.” GS

Rishi Sunak rings in Diwali

Toby Melville, 2023

Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

There is plenty that is unprogressive about Rishi Sunak, from his controversial migration policies to his apparent lack of interest in fighting climate breakdown. But the appointment of the first prime minister of colour in the UK – and also the first Hindu at No 10 – was nonetheless a landmark moment. In this photo from November last year, Sunak and his family are seen lighting diyas outside the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street to mark the first day of Diwali. Three years earlier, the then-chancellor lit the Diwali lamps alone outside No 11. However, many would argue that the staged photo of the extremely wealthy Sunak filling up a Kia Rio at a Sainsbury’s petrol station – which went viral for the wrong reasons when it was revealed he had borrowed the car from a supermarket worker – is perhaps the truer defining image of Britain’s richest PM. GS

Shirley Williams campaigns for the SDP

Alamy, 1983

In the lead-up to the general election of 1983, the Social Democratic party – formed two years earlier by ex-members of Labour unhappy with the party’s movement to the left – briefly looked like it stood a chance of breaking through. Shirley Williams, who became the SDP’s first elected MP after winning the 1981 Crosby byelection, is pictured on the campaign trail, carried by broadcaster Steve Race (left) and comedy legend Barry Cryer (right), and supported by (from left) actors Simon Cadell, Robert Powell, Denis Quilley and Richard Attenborough, and presenter Bamber Gascoigne. Though Williams – the second child of the political scientist George Catlin and the pacifist author Vera Brittain – lost her seat, she was still widely liked by the public and her peers, and was nicknamed “Shirl the Pearl” for her popularity. She remained active in politics until her retirement in 2016, notably serving as leader of the Liberal Democrats – which were formed after a merger of the SDP and the Liberal party – in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004. GS

Ed Miliband’s cursed bacon sandwich

Jeremy Selwyn, 2014

Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard/Getty Images

For Ed Miliband, 21 May 2014 should have been like any other day of campaigning. But on a visit to London’s New Covent Garden market – where he was photographed buying flowers for his wife – he got hungry and made a fateful decision: he ate a bacon sandwich.

“He didn’t realise how hot it was,” says Jeremy Selwyn, who captured the first bite. “Obviously he really struggled with it because it was baking hot. As a photographer, you can’t ignore images like that – although I didn’t realise at the time what a huge impact it would have.”

The image appeared on the front page of the Sun and in countless memes. Though it is undeniably a funny photo – as is any unflattering picture of someone eating – it made Miliband a target for the rightwing press, which seized on it as a symbol of the politician’s supposed incompetence: if he couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich, how could he run a country? “A lot of people said it did in his political career,” says Selwyn. “I’m not sure if it did – he was struggling as a politician at that stage. I don’t have any worries about what I’ve done – as photographers, we just record what is happening in front of us.”

David Miliband’s banana

Felipe Trueba, 2008

Photograph: Felipe Trueba/UPPA/Photoshot

Ed’s brother David had his breakfast choices used against him a few years earlier. In 2008, the then foreign secretary was photographed holding a banana as he walked to the Labour conference. Felipe Trueba recalls the moment: “Miliband arrived with a banana in his hand, not thinking much about it.” When he realised the press were pointing at it: “He displayed it to everyone and had a laugh about the fact that they were paying so much attention to such a trivial thing … and everything went out of control.” The photo was widely mocked. Later that year, the Conservative party conference served “David Miliband bananas” stickered with an image of the politician; and in 2010 Channel 4 reported that his aides still bore the psychological scars of “banana-gate”. “Was Miliband, a hardened politician, too naive?” says Trueba. “Maybe. But certainly he did not deserve ‘banana-gate’.” NLP

Harold Wilson and the Beatles

Kent Gavin, 1964

Photograph: Kent Gavin/Getty Images

In this image, taken on 19 March 1964, a smiling Harold Wilson stands beside the Beatles. At first glance, the photo signals a new Britain, free from the stuffiness of the 1950s. The Beatles were already global stars, representing a new youth culture, and just over six months later, Wilson would be leading a Labour government that pushed through liberalising social reforms.

“The zeitgeist seems to be going their way,” says David Kynaston, historian and author of A Northern Wind. “Wilson is a reaction against the Old Etonian prime ministers. He’s a Yorkshireman who was state educated and really understands economics and the modern world – that’s the impression he gives.”

While the pull of modernity looks “irresistible” in this photo, says Kynaston, the truth is actually more complicated. “We tend to exaggerate the pace of change in the 60s. There was change happening in society, and clearly in politics – after all, Labour did win the election – but these winds weren’t quite as rapid as one assumes,” he says. “It was still a society with constant tension between modernity and people being resistant to modernity.” When this photograph was taken, he says, there was extreme racial prejudice in society, abortion and homosexuality were illegal, and capital punishment was still in force. “Like many photographs, it tells the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth.” NLP

Kwarteng blows it

Oli Scarff, 2022

Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

After the chaos of the Boris Johnson years, the UK was preparing for a period of relative calm with the appointment of Liz Truss as prime minister in September 2022.

Then the Queen died. And as soon as normal business resumed, Kwasi Kwarteng – a new Tory star and the first Black chancellor – dropped his mini budget entitled “the growth plan” in the House of Commons. The £45bn tax-cutting package – which included huge tax cuts for the highest paid and the abolition of a cap on bankers’ bonuses – crashed the pound, spooked borrowers and triggered an emergency Bank of England £65bn bond-buying programme.

As the budget exploded on impact with reality – “a little turbulence” he called it – Kwarteng began to U-turn, before heading to the Conservative party conference. Here, Oli Scarff of Agence France-Press captured him mid-interview as he struggled to regain the narrative.

The fallout of the mini-budget would torpedo Kwarteng’s career, make Truss the shortest-serving prime minister in history – and leave ordinary Britons staring at their mortgage statements in despair. WD

Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club

Painted by Rona Marsden from a 1987 photograph

This image would come to represent the elitism at the highest levels of British politics. The Bullingdon Club is a male-only Oxford University student drinking club associated with sexism, wild antics and destructive behaviour people close to it have recalled stories of members soliciting sex workers to perform at the club’s dinners, and vandalising restaurants and student accommodation. Since it was founded more than 200 years ago, it has counted in its ranks numerous future members of the British establishment.

In this image of the 1987 cohort in the club’s infamous tailcoat uniform, future Conservative prime minister David Cameron stands second left, while Boris Johnson sits bottom right. George Osborne – who was in a 1992 photograph of the club – would go on to become chancellor in Cameron’s government. When Osborne and Cameron pursued their policy of austerity, the resurfaced photos raised questions about inequality.

The “class of 87” picture became so notorious that permission to republish the photograph was withdrawn by the copyright holders. To get around that, journalist Michael Crick commissioned artist Rona Marsden to paint a copy. “I thought the image was a stirring representation of an elitist club – a timeless image in many ways,” says Marsden. “Of course I was aware of who was in the photograph and didn’t think that it was fair that someone was trying to hide it.” NLP

Nigel Farage with a pint

Gareth Fuller, 2015

Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

The image of Nigel Farage at the pub with a beer was central to the formation of his brand identity. When on the campaign trail for Ukip before the 2015 general election, the self-styled “man of the people” regularly mugged for the cameras while brandishing a pint of bitter (never lager). Here he is pictured with a pint at the Northwood Club in the seaside town of Ramsgate, in the seat of South Thanet where he was standing to be the MP. “A member of staff at the pub realised it was St George’s Day and gave Nigel the apron [with the flag of St George] to wear,” recalls photographer Gareth Fuller. “He’s always great for a picture, so he put it on, held his pint, and we snapped away. I think the image of Nigel having a pint and a chat in a pub isn’t a bad one,” says Fuller. “It seems a natural thing for him to do and suggests he is approachable to all sorts of people.”

Farage might not have won his bid for South Thanet in 2015, but he was so popular with the Ukip membership that, days after the election, the party rejected his resignation as leader. But how authentic is the salt-of-the-earth image of Farage, an ex-commodities trader? In 2019, a waggish tabloid story claimed that he actually preferred red wine, and drinks beer just “to be seen with it”. GS

Bevan and the birth of the NHS

Trafford Healthcare NHS, 1948

Photograph: Trafford Healthcare NHS/PA

This photograph captures the birth of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948. Here, Aneurin Bevan, the health minister who fought hard to get his plan for free healthcare past Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour cabinet, is pictured on the day of its inauguration. Bevan stands beside a patient and nurse in Park hospital in Davyhulme, Manchester – the first NHS hospital. More than 75 years later, the NHS still holds to its founding principle: that healthcare should be free at the point of use. NLP

Boris Johnson on a wire

Kois Miah, 2012

Photograph: Kois Miah/Getty Images

The bumbling buffoon, the court jester, the clown king: these are just some of the unflattering epithets assigned to Boris Johnson over his political career. Yet it is also often pointed out that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing by playing the fool – that it has all been a carefully calibrated act. How else to explain his participation in such silly capers as a zip wire trip at an event to celebrate the 2012 Olympic Games in London?

When the zip wire malfunctioned, the then mayor of London was famously left dangling in his harness while holding a pair of union jacks for around 10 minutes. After an onlooker posted a snap to Twitter, the photographer Kois Miah was dispatched to Victoria Park in east London to find out what was going on. “If the editors hadn’t sent me there on my bike,” Miah recalls, “the episode may never have been published so widely.”

“The world’s media was focused on the actual Olympics, so it was really surprising to see the photo from a fringe event in almost all the nationals the next day – and even more crazy that it’s still remembered and referenced 12 years after the event,” says Miah. The image of Johnson flailing in the air after attempting a pointless stunt seems to be a resonant metaphor. Another strange layer to the story: park goers there at the time have said it was well known the zip wire wasn’t working, and speculated that Johnson staged the whole thing. GS

Lord Palmerston

Herbert Watkins, 1857

Photograph: Herbert Watkins/Pictorial Press/Alamy

Lord Palmerston, who became Britain’s oldest prime minister when he took up the post at 70 (and would later become the first PM for the newly formed Liberal party) is pictured in what is believed to be one of the earliest photographs of a sitting British prime minister. The 1857 photograph by Herbert Watkins began the tradition of official ministerial portraits that continues to this day. “Most human beings, few more so than prime ministers, are vain,” says historian Anthony Seldon. He argues the portraits “tell much about how the individual wants to portray themselves, but rather less about what the individual is really like underneath it all”. Alison Smith, chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, which houses a collection of Watkins’ work, says official portraits “inevitably conform to a type that conveys decorum and begs our trust”. NLP

Theresa May does the Maybot

Oli Scarff, 2018

Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

During her premiership, Theresa May acquired a reputation – less from her policies, but rather her manner – as the cringiest of prime ministers. Her most awkward and embarrassing moments frequently became internet memes: here she is pictured bopping on to the stage at the 2018 Conservative party conference to the strains of Abba’s Dancing Queen (apparently one of her favourite songs). Was this a self-deprecating reference to two widely mocked dancing attempts during a trade trip across Africa earlier that summer? Whatever the logic, the “Maybot’s” stilted moves at the Tory conference did nothing to counteract her unfortunate reputation. GS

Tobias Ellwood and PC Keith Palmer

Stefan Rousseau, 2017

Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Tobias Ellwood, then a junior foreign minister, was on his way to parliament on the afternoon of 22 March 2017 when he came across the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack outside the Palace of Westminster. The Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, a medically trained former soldier, rushed to help. He attempted to perform resuscitation on PC Keith Palmer, who had been stabbed by the attacker. Despite the efforts of Ellwood and others, Palmer died from his injuries – he was one of five people killed in the attack.

There might never have been a visual record of these events if Stefan Rousseau, chief political photographer of the Press Association, had not been at the organisation’s offices in parliament that day. “I’m out and about a lot,” he says, “but I just happened to be there.” After hearing the gunshots, Rousseau found his way to a bathroom window, where he remained for 40 minutes taking photographs. He ignored calls from his picture editor so he wouldn’t have to put his camera down.

The harrowing images show blood spattered on Ellwood’s forehead as he attended to Palmer, surrounded by a group of medics and officers. “When people saw the pictures, he became a hero of the moment,” Rousseau recalls. Politicians on all sides hailed Ellwood for his bravery, and the Queen appointed him to the privy council in recognition of his role in attempting to save Palmer’s life. GS

Gordon Brown’s triumph – in hindsight

Martin Argles, 2009

Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

In the summer of 2009, Brown, who had finally replaced his great rival and ally Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street in 2007, was having a torrid time. He had been battered by the biggest financial crisis in generations, dismal local election results, party in-fighting that nearly toppled his leadership, and a public image so bad that an article in the Guardian headlined “Where did it all go wrong for Gordon Brown?” said “Brown is a prime minister so beleaguered, so unpopular and seemingly exhausted, so apparently luckless and unsuited to the job, that he attracts general ridicule and even pity.”

But, just a few months earlier, Brown had played perhaps the pivotal role in preventing the global banking system collapsing over one frantic, terrifying October 2008 weekend. Fast-forward to April 2009, and Brown led a G20 summit in London in which leaders of the world’s biggest economies agreed deals to further stabilise the economy – though there would later be global protests against the way governments had propped up the banks at taxpayers’ expense. Brown was soon out of office – bigotgate and all that – but his trashed reputation in the short term has been replaced in the history books by the images of him centre-stage in London with Obama, Sarkozy et al, breathing a mighty sigh of relief. WD

Enoch Powell

Popperfoto/Getty Images, 1970

This photograph of Conservative MP Enoch Powell speaking in Birmingham in 1970 was taken two years after his notorious “rivers of blood” speech, but conveys the politician’s controversial fiery oratory. Speaking at a meeting of Conservative activists in April 1968, Powell had criticised the proposed Race Relations Act, which would make it illegal to refuse employment, housing or public services to someone based on their race and ethnicity. He had warned that immigration to Britain from former colonies would lead to violent clashes: “As I look ahead I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

The speech instantly became one of the most divisive in British history. Powell’s views were widely denounced and blamed for inspiring violent attacks on minority communities, but others took to the streets in support of Powell’s calls to repatriate immigrants. It also pushed one Wolverhampton primary school to the centre of the debate – in the speech, Powell had claimed that a constituent had told him their child was the only white student in the class, which created a media frenzy. West Park school has since used Powell’s legacy to teach diversity and integration. NLP

Paisley on the stump

Peter Kemp, 1982

Photograph: Peter Kemp/AP

Ian Paisley’s dramatic, and welcome, decision in 2007 to enter into a power-sharing agreement with Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin might have marked the surprising denouement of his unlikely political odyssey, but it’s images like this of the Democratic Unionist party founder – wild-eyed, furious and spouting hellfire – that defined how many will remember his turbulent career. Paisley – nicknamed Dr No – was unbending, difficult and obdurate: he once said the naming of a new Belfast bridge after Queen Elizabeth II rather than unionist hero Edward Carson was “a sop to the Catholics”. On his death in 2014, tributes came from across Northern Ireland’s political divide – but for many Paisley will be for ever tainted by his decades of rabble-rousing and overt bigotry. WD

The Liz Truss lettuce

Daily Star, 2022

In 2022, the UK had three different prime ministers in the space of two months. There is perhaps no better image that reflects this disastrous and embarrassing era of British politics than the lettuce that outlasted Liz Truss’s premiership. In October, the Daily Star set up a webcam to livestream an iceberg lettuce, dressed up with a blond wig and creepy smile, to see whether it or Truss would have a longer shelf life. After a tumultuous 45 days as PM, in which “Trussonomics” caused the pound to drop to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985, Truss announced her resignation, and it was the lettuce that triumphed, strong and unwilting. NLP

Barbara Castle fights for equal pay

Dave Bagnall Collection, 1954

Photograph: Dave Bagnall Collection/Alamy

With her auburn hair and socialist leanings, Barbara Castle was dubbed the “red queen” of the Labour party. Among the notable achievements of her long career – she served as Blackburn’s MP for more than three decades – was the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which prohibited pay-based discrimination between men and women. Castle had been campaigning on the issue for many years. This photo from 1954 shows her (second from the right) in a cross-party group of female MPs delivering a petition calling for “equal pay for equal work” to the House of Commons. GS

Nick Clegg and David Cameron in the rose garden

Christopher Furlong, 2010

Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“The atmosphere was like a country wedding, all the guests assembled in the rose garden to welcome the newlywed couple,” recalls photographer Christopher Furlong of the first joint press conference held by David Cameron and Nick Clegg after they formed a coalition government in 2010. Journalists had been expecting to see little more than a brisk handshake outside No 10. Instead, the new prime minister and his deputy stood side by side in the idyllic setting of the Downing Street rose garden, seeking to project an image of unity and happiness following a bitterly fought election campaign. GS

This article was amended on 4 February 2024 to correct the credit for the image of Jacob Rees-Mogg, which was taken in the House of Commons by the former MP Anna Turley, and originally posted on Twitter. Also, text was added to clarify that Neil Kinnock later said his 1992 rallying cry was “well, all right!”, not “we’re alright!”.

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