‘omnishambles’: meaning and origin

Of British-English origin, the colloquial noun omnishambles denotes a situation that has been completely mismanaged.

This noun is from:
– the prefix omni-, used to form compounds in which the first element has the sense in all ways or places or of all things;
– the noun shambles, denoting a state of total disorder.

The noun omnishambles was coined by Tony Roche, a scriptwriter for the BBC satirical television series The Thick of It. In the first episode of the third series, which was first broadcast on Saturday 24th October 2009, Malcolm Tucker 1, the Downing Street Director of Communications, says the following to Nicola Murray 2, the newly-appointed Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship, who has just told him that she is a claustrophobic:

Oh, that’s great! that’s fucking great! that’s another fucking thing, right there! not only have you got a fucking bent husband, and a fucking daughter that is taken to school in a fucking sedan chair! you’re also fucking mental! Jesus Christ! see, you, you’re a fucking omnishambles, that’s what you are! you’re like that coffee machine, you know: from bean to cup, you fuck up!

1 Malcolm Tucker was interpreted by Peter Capaldi (born 1958).
2 Nicola Murray was interpreted by Rebecca Front (born 1964).

The earliest occurrences of the noun omnishambles that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From How Labour has stopped caring what voters think, by Matthew d’Ancona, published in the London Evening Standard (London, England) of Monday 2nd November 2009:

AS MY TEXT for the coming week in politics, allow me to remind you of an outburst by No 10 enforcer Malcolm Tucker, from the wonderful new series of The Thick of It. Learning that, in addition to being married to a man embroiled in a PFI scandal and intending to send her child to a private school, Nicola Murray, the freshly-appointed Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship, suffers from claustrophobia, Tucker delivers the following tirade: “Not only have you got a f***ing bent husband, and a f***ing daughter that is taken to school in a f***ing sedan chair! You’re also f***ing mental! Jesus Christ—see you—you’re a f***ing omnishambles, that’s what you are!”
When MPs read Sir Christopher Kelly’s review on the future of MPs’ allowances on Wednesday, they should take a deep breath and recall Tucker’s outburst. For it captures precisely what the public thinks of the political class, in the wake of the expenses scandal and a thousand other infractions of common sense.
Mr Brown 3 likes to quote Barack Obama’s 4 slogan that, just as the issues got big, politics got small. In the grand scheme of things, the quibbles of our parliamentarians are microscopic. This is why their whingeing this week will seem so distasteful and why, once again, the voters will be raging at the “omnishambles” on their television screens, like 30 million Malcolm Tuckers.

3 The Labour statesman Gordon Brown (born 1951) was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010.
4 The Democratic statesman Barack Obama (born 1961) was the 44th President of the USA from 2009 to 2017.

2-: From Liverpool shattered by Arshavin, the account of a football match between Arsenal and Liverpool, by Sam Wallace, published in the Irish Independent (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 14th December 2009:

In the second half Benitez’s team were, as Malcolm Tucker might say, an omni-shambles; a team incapable of lifting themselves from the terrible run of results that is engulfing them.

3-: From Cameron 5 isn’t a winner—and that’s where his problems begin, by Benedict Brogan, published in The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of Thursday 7th April 2011:

Institutionally, the Prime Minister is still suffering the consequences of his speech in Cardiff a few weeks ago, when he described senior civil servants as the “enemies of enterprise”. The speech was a reflection of the frustration felt by Mr Cameron and those around him—in particular his adviser Steve Hilton—at the slow pace of transformation. Whatever the justification, the aftermath has been disastrous. Senior officials who had been asked to slash budgets, sack staff, reverse previous policies and accept pay cuts have been told that they are the enemy. The relationship between Coalition and Civil Service has gone sour. Whitehall is close to working to rule, at a time when the Government is attempting extensive and ambitious reforms. Recently, two permanent secretaries with close-quarters experience of the Gordon Brown fiasco, who found themselves idly comparing notes on the current lot, concluded: “It’s the return of the omnishambles”, a reference to the phrase coined by Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed spinner from the TV sitcom The Thick of It.

5 The Conservative statesman David Cameron (born 1966) was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016 (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015).

4-: From Hacking scandal: Tory MPs join the outcry as Cameron jets off to Africa, by Joe Murphy, political editor, published in the London Evening Standard (London, England) of Monday 18th July 2011:


Ground: Parliament; Kick-off: 9.30 am
Once again the Prime Minister saw the ball kicked through his legs. At 9.30 am, Miliband declared that the Commons should sit a day longer, until Wednesday, to debate the hacking and policing omnishambles. At 9.50, Cameron agreed with Ed that such a step “may well be right”. Another Miliband win—this time highlighting how the PM is marooned in South Africa instead of keeping tabs at home. The extra sitting may allow the PM to de-cancel his meeting with the 22 Committee and mend some fences.
Score: Cameron 0, Miliband 1

6 The Labour statesman Edward Miliband (born 1969) was the Leader of the Opposition from 2010 to 2015.

5-: From Should David Cameron wash his hands of Lansley’s NHS reform Bill?, by Matt Chorley, published in The Independent (London, England) of Sunday 12th February 2012:

Almost two years in the making, the once eye-catching plan to take the axe to the NHS’s bloated bureaucracy and hand power to family doctors has become a metaphor for Mr Cameron’s worst failings as Prime Minister—lack of attention to detail, a hands-off management style, misplaced loyalty to old friends and a deep-rooted belief that shouting at the Despatch Box will silence one’s critics.
One exasperated government strategist resorted to quoting Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed spin doctor from The Thick of It, to sum up how bad things have become: “It is a fucking omnishambles.”

6-: From Are we still willing to play along with Cameron’s pain game?, by Benedict Brogan, published in The Daily Telegraph (London, England) of Wednesday 4th April 2012:

In Downing Street, where they talk of an “omnishambles”—the term coined by the political sitcom The Thick of It—the post-mortems are still raging. By all accounts, the Prime Minister has been unsettled by recent events, and is pondering how to steer himself out of the spin. The temptation in a skid is to yank the wheel, and he is not short of advice on how to change party and government structures to protect himself against further disasters.

7-: From a debate that took place in the House of Commons on Wednesday 18th April 2012—source: Hansard, the official report of all Parliamentary debates:

Edward Miliband—On charities, the reality is that the Prime Minister is not making the rich worse off. He is making charities worse off. Over the past month we have seen the charity tax shambles, the churches tax shambles, the caravan tax shambles and the pasty tax shambles, so we are all keen to hear the Prime Minister’s view on why he thinks, four weeks on from the Budget, even people within Downing street are calling it an omnishambles Budget.

8-: From the London Evening Standard (London, England) of Thursday 19th April 2012:

Cameron under attack over budget ‘omnishambles’

DAVID CAMERON came under stinging criticism for the Budget “omnishambles” today amid rebellions in the Commons and claims that ministers have lost control of their departments.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell said Civil Service “Sir Humphreys” were making decisions, while former Treasury mandarin Jill Rutter claimed No 10 was weakened by Mr Cameron’s decision to cut the number of political advisers.
In a night of revolt against Budget measures, nine Tories and four Lib-Dems voted against the pasty tax, another 16 Tories and a Lib-Dem rebelled on the caravan tax, and Lib-Dem ministers Sarah Teather and Nick Harvey missed the votes, though they had permission.
Tory peer Lord Ashcroft said the term “omnishambles” summed up the four weeks since the Budget.

9-: From a debate that took place in the House of Commons on Thursday 19th April 2012—source: Hansard, the official report of all Parliamentary debates:

Cathy Jamieson [Labour (Co-op) MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun]—It has appeared at various times during the debate that the announcement of the changes was designed more to appeal to the Tory party conference than as a plan to be actually implemented. Suggestions have been made that the Chancellor perhaps did not even believe that he would have to implement it. I do not know whether that is true, but this appears to be yet another part of what the Leader of the Opposition described as an “omnishambles”. In Scotland, we would say that the Government’s plan is a bit of a boorach, which translates as a mess or a muddle.

10-: From We can’t put a label on how awful this is…, by John Rentoul, published in The Independent (London, England) of Friday 20th April 2012:

The word of the week is omnishambles. Omnishambles. Roll it round your lips.
It was a word first used in an expletive-strewn rant by Malcolm Tucker in a lift in The Thick Of It. Recently it became part of the argot of journalists and Government special advisers after Tim Shipman, chairman of the Press Gallery of the House of Commons and deputy political editor of the Daily Mail, used it in private conversation to describe “level six of a 12-point scale” for measuring political disasters.
On Tuesday, Rachel Sylvester, the Times columnist, quoted “one government source” as saying: “I think the technical term is omnishambles.”
That gave the leader of the Opposition his opening at Prime Minister’s Questions the next day. Just beforehand, Mr Shipman asked me: “What price Ed Miliband using the phrase ‘omnishambles’ in PMQs?”
He couldn’t possibly, I said. That would be silly. How wrong I was.
“We are all keen to hear the Prime Minister’s view”, Mr Miliband said, “on why he thinks, four weeks on from the Budget, even people within Downing street are calling it an omnishambles Budget.” Oh well. It was fun while it lasted. That killed it.

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