We are now three episodes into the third season of The Thick of It and I think this is the episode where we begin to see Malcolm’s downfall. It will take the rest of the season for him to reach rock bottom, but I believe this is the first step toward the explosive event that occurs in the penultimate episode of Season Three. This episode takes place during a party political conference in Eastbourne and several important things take place here. Firstly, Malcolm underestimates the power of the new, online media forces. Secondly, he makes some poor judgments regarding his own image. Lastly, we can see that support for Malcolm’s party, which has been in power for quite some time now, is beginning to wane.
As they are in Eastbourne for their party conference, all of our regular characters have been transplanted from their office to a hotel. The episode opens with Nicola asking after their “People’s Champion” – Julie Price, a woman whose husband died in a cafe collapse and is now calling for more construction safety. Price will be used as a “regular person” in Nicola’s speech to the conference attendees. We also meet John Duggan, the party press officer supposed to be helping Nicola and other ministers while they’re at the conference.
When Duggan asks Nicola about her holiday, she says that her family wanted to go to Florida, but Malcolm made them go to Suffolk so they were all miserable. I find it interesting that Malcolm can dictate even where his ministers go on holiday. Nicola also mentions that Peter Mannion – her opposite number, who we met in the specials – took two holidays and that they should try to attack him on that point. When it becomes clear that John Duggan isn’t much help with anything, Nicola calls Terri for help. Terri, who is often not much help either, tells Nicola that this kind of thing is really John Duggan’s responsibility.
Glen and Duggan go to meet Julie Price, who says that she has a speech of her own. Glen seems surprised by this, but says they just need to get it approved. Meanwhile, Nicola and Ollie are busy working on her speech, trying to punch it up with jokes about Peter “Two Holidays” Mannion.
Elsewhere at the conference, Malcolm is talking to some journalists when he’s asked about bloggers. Malcolm slams them quite hard, showing his clear disdain and lack of respect for them as a news source or branch of the media. Angela Heaney then says that some health numbers in the PM’s speech have been found to be false by a blogger. Malcolm, all smiles, says that’s ridiculous, but we then see him frantically calling Sam to fix the mess. No matter what he might say, the new media clearly is a threat to the Government.
The next time we see Malcolm, he’s on the phone to the PM saying that he can’t spin the mess with the health numbers in his speech. They need something else to fill the gap in the PM’s speech, but what?
Just then, Malcolm runs into Ollie and Julie Price. Malcolm becomes suddenly very attentive to Julie and says that the PM finds her very impressive. As Ollie looks on helplessly, Malcolm says that the PM would love to have Julie in his speech. Malcolm needs something to fill the gap left by the health numbers, so he simply steals Nicola’s “People’s Champion.” Of course, given the choice, Julie would rather be in the PM’s speech than in the speech of the minister for Social Affairs and Citizenship.
Ollie tries to tell Malcolm that he can’t just steal Julie away from them, but Malcolm shouts him into submission and trots off with Julie. Ollie dashes back to tell Nicola the awful news and she goes completely ballistic. Glen, feeling quite upset that his People’s Champion has been commandeered, goes to confront Malcolm. They shout at each other, Malcolm tries to get him to calm down, but he ends up clocking Glen right in the nose in a fit of passion. To me, this moment speaks volumes about where Malcolm is in his career trajectory right now. He’s clearly under a lot of pressure and, whereas he used to keep it firmly under wraps, he’s now allowing it to show. Of course, as soon as he makes this mistake, he’s glancing around the hotel hallway to make sure no one saw the incident.
Nicola and Ollie try to tend to Glen’s swollen face, and Nicola tries to come up with something to fill the gap they now have in their own speech. Malcolm comes in and tries to make amends, apologizing to Glen and saying that he’ll help them with their speech. But then they all receive word that Malcolm’s punching incident has been leaked to the press. Ironically, it’s a blogger who has broken the news. Malcolm says they need to get Julie Price out of the hotel before journalists descend on her.
Nicola calls Terri yet again, saying that she needs to come to Eastbourne to help them out. Terri says she can’t possibly come to the party conference because she’s a civil servant and can’t be seen dealing with a party political matter. But Nicola is quite desperate for some assistance, so Terri arrives in a parka to hide her identity and smuggles Julie away from the conference.
At a small meet-and-greet with some journalists, Malcolm – looking quite dashing in a tuxedo – buddies up to Glen to make sure that everyone there knows he would never punch him. Most of the journalists, though, don’t seem to be falling for the act. Malcolm pulls John Duggan aside into a bathroom to accuse him of leaking the punching story, which is now apparently known as “Fist-i-gate.”
Elsewhere, in a cafe in Eastbourne, Terri keeps Julie Price occupied. They’re talking casually when Julie says that she has been tweeting on her phone. This worries Terri because if Julie tweets about her, her cover could be blown and she’s not supposed to be at the conference. Terri gives Nicola a call and tells her that Julie was probably the source of the leak via Twitter. She meets up with Nicola and Glen to hand Julie off to them again and then hurries off in her parka.
Back at the hotel, Malcolm and Nicola confront Julie about her tweets being ready by a blogger, who then wrote about Malcolm’s fit of rage that involved punching Glen’s nose. Julie gets quite insulted by this and, feeling pretty annoyed by now from being shuttled back and forth and treated like a political commodity, goes off on them. When she’s finished shouting about how they’re trying to intimidate her and how she doesn’t think they’re doing a good job with the country, Malcolm tells Glen they have to get rid of her.
As soon as Julie Price has left the room, Malcolm sneers, “Do we have anything that we can use against her?” They decide to spin something she said offhand as an extremist view and use that as their reasoning for dropping her from the speech. As Nicola and Ollie rush off to give the actual speech, Malcolm mentions Julie Price’s “extremist views” rather loudly within earshot of a blogger he knows. In the end, it’s rather interesting that Malcolm uses the new media to his advantage. Either he’s a quick learner or he’s simply an opportunist.
The speech ends up going fairly well, expect that Malcolm is disappointed in the lack of jokes. It turns out Nicola lost an entire page of Peter Mannion jokes when Glen messed up in printing the speech. Ah, just another day in DoSAC.
Next week we’ll see what happens when the Opposition comes calling to visit the department and Nicola handles a school-related issue with her daughter.