Morning Lemmings and praise be, we are no longer in Scotland and back on a more familiar footing, unhindered by issues I care not for and accents I can’t fathom. No Lemmings, this week we find ourselves in Huddersfield and I’m happy to say that I’ve got a pretty good idea of what goes on in that neck of the woods thanks to a rather colourful history I share with the town. Most of this is down to the fact that it’s only a few miles down the road from me but also because when the band I’m in first started playing live, we ended up in Huddersfield on a fair few occasions. Unfortunately for both me and Huddersfield, we hadn’t quite figured out the correct alcohol-to-performance ratio and one of our earlier gigs was largely characterised by me trying to explain/slur to the audience that “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Huddersfeld Bus Staton”. This was largely met with bemused puzzlement but I remained undeterred and continued to berate the assembled rabble that “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Huddersfeld Tran Staton” either. For reasons beyond me I just wouldn’t let this go (probably because I was very proud of being able to remove ‘I’s from words whilst barely being able to stand) and the evening rapidly descended into farce as I realised that all the things that my hands were doing with the guitar were not the things they were supposed to be doing. So yes, Huddersfeld and I go back a bit.
Sub-prime tales of amateur rockery aside, I was into this episode, not because it was in any way an epic bloodbath or anything remotely like that but mainly because it proved a cautionary tale into the pitfalls of frontbench politics. Our two protagonists in this tale of woe take the form of loco right-wing lodestar John Redwood and Womble-esque Secretary of State for Transport Norman Baker. Now, this pair have come at their career from completely opposite ends with Redwood entering government a bare two years after becoming an MP whilst Baker has only just arrived into a position of power after 13 years on the shelf. The experience of government for Redwood had been a chequered affair to say the least, what with him being possibly the most rabid proponent of Thatcherism in a government full of rabid proponents of Thatcherism, his now legendary bollocksing up of the Welsh national anthem and his failed attempt to topple John Major. Basically, he veered erratically between being genuinely, frighteningly crazy and a general purpose figure of ridicule. In contrast, Baker spent his early years being pretty much the textbook example of an effective backbencher and he had the guts to take on some very powerful figures (he started in motion the chain of events that led to Mandelson’s second resignation), would go out of his way to uncover things of an iffy nature (the Dr. Kelly affair comes to mind) and nurtured a whole host of kooky little side causes like Tibet. Here he is with a tiny manifestation of the Dalai Lama levitating between his cupped hands (see Fig. 1… it’s been a dry week for Google Images).
Fast forward to last night’s show and we find that the tables have turned and the results are quite dramatic for the fortunes of our protagonists. Take Redwood for example: Since he’s been on the backbenches Ol’ Vulcanchops has actually become quite fun as he wilfully takes potshots at his own party and this was apparent throughout the episode. Greece (which he insisted on addressing as ‘she’)? Let the bastards go under! U-turns? Couldn’t care less providing that someone stops Clarke from bumming offenders. Pensions?The public sector can go suck a lemon (actually, that’s a little unfair as he did attempt to act in a slightly conciliatory manner on this question)! Sure, some of what he said really shouldn’t be uttered north of the Severn-Wash line and he was rightly pilloried for taking the ‘it’s all Labour’s fault’ jalopy out for its ten trillionth spin but all the while he looked very comfortable and certainly wasn’t going to arse about with such trivialities as toeing the party line. Now, I realise that I’ve relentlessly taken the piss out of him in the past but that’s mainly because it’s so easy and in actual fact, I quite enjoyed seeing him on last night’s show, despite how weird that sounds as the words pass my lips. Jesus, did I really just say that?
Baker, by contrast, had an entirely different match and not a great one at that. He largely got away with the Greece question by letting Redwood go through the ‘Labour’s fault’ motions but he seemed vulnerable on the u-turn and pensions numbers. Granted, there was only one moment when things got really dicey (the boo-fest about the manifesto) but you could tell that he was on borrowed time and although he generally sounded reasonable, you got the sense that singing from the Downing Street issued hymn book was actually bloody hard work for him. And therein lies the rub: People like Baker and Redwood are essentially free range politicians and enticing though power may be, captivity in government leads inevitably to their slow decline into madness. In many ways I think that’s a shame because I like Baker and I think he’s well suited to his brief (Transport Minister is an inherently nerdy posting), but his main strengths lie in the fact that he’s very adept at holding the powerful to account and that’s something that’s very tricky to do when you’re actually in government. So sorry Norman, I know it’s cool to play with the biggest train set in the world but seriously, is it worth it?
The other big political story of the night was that Labour’s panelist actually did very well and about bloody time too if you don’t mind me saying (mind you, that’s what you get when you only put forward ex-Home Secretaries for ten million weeks in a row). On the stump for the Red Team was parliamentary n00b Rachel Reeves and funnily enough, the MP for my constituency. While I’ve never met Reeves personally, I did send her a very pedantic email prior to the election demanding why exactly I should vote for her and to her credit, she replied at length. Ok, so we had a few disagreements about foreign policy and I actually ended up voting Green, but at least she took the time to indulge my curmudgeonry and from that point on, I’ve been keeping a close eye on her. In terms of the show, she got off to a strong start with some well-aimed jabs at the coalition and also had the gumption to bring up the fact that the Tory’s were fully signed up to Labour’s spending plans prior to the crash. Quite why Labour have been so reluctant to pull this one out of the bag more often I don’t know but it’s nice to finally see someone pour cold water on what has been the coalitions stock response to pretty much any criticism. Most of her other response were also fairly robust with a good innings on pensions/u-turns and the crowd seemed to be largely signed up to the Reeves Manifesto. Ok, so if you’re a Labour politician facing Redwood in Huddersfield and the crowd aren’t with you then you might as well just give up as this is about as easy as it gets, but I was impressed with her performance and I’ve got a feeling that she’s one to watch… Even if her slightly blokey voice jars with her otherwise female face.
Right, that’s the political bit, now for the civilians, this week represented by Anorak-in-Chief David Mitchell and paragon of mumsiness Fern Britton. Given that Mitchell has now been appointed as the Default Face of Middlebrow Satire he was pretty much in his element on Question Time and he was very easy to watch. All his answers were pictures of reasonableness with a few chuckles thrown in for good measure and while he isn’t so great with the details, the points he was making all seemed to make a good amount of sense. Britton on the other hand was a completely different kettle of fish and most of her responses can be summed up as follows:
“I’m too sure about [insert current subject here], but as a mother/woman/feminist [delete as appropriate] I despair/enthusiastically endorse [delete as appropriate] of whatever it is that we’re talking about”
When this approach to political debate is combined with a halting yet impassioned delivery you begin to feel like you’re being smothered to death with several tons of marshmallows. I’m conscious that this all sounds a little po-faced as Britton doesn’t pretend to be anything other than human security blanket and her Blair interview made it clear that she’s the softest of softballers but I just don’t think her MO makes for very good Question Timing. Sure, it garners claps-a-plenty but it doesn’t really add anything to mix. Having said that, it would have been funny if Phillip Schofield was also on the panel and they ended up descending into their obligatory fog of giggles and innuendo, but until that happens my face will continue to be po.
So that was panel, what of the audience? On the face of it this was a pretty mundane show: Redwood largely behaved, no-one said anything especially earth-shattering and the biggest clap of the night actually went to Dimbleby when he speared Baker with some high velocity tuition fees. Having said that though it was just what I needed, largely because I instantly understood it. Given that I live in Leeds, the politics of the M62 are my bread and butter and this crowd were pretty much a living representation of what that entails. Sure, they weren’t the most exciting bunch (although the guy who looked like the Pennines’ answer to the X-Factor’s Wagner did spice things up a little) and no major scalps were claimed but it had the feel of a very well made cup of tea: Ultimately unexciting but immensely comforting nevertheless.
(probably makes a whole bunch of women feel) Brood(y)
The Crowd: 5/10
Ok, so that was totally mellow. Sorry if it wasn’t the most exciting report but it really did feel like a warm bath episode and warm baths are only funny if someone farts in the them. No one farted in this episode. Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know the mellowness was only transitory in nature and was soon ripped apart by the eye-splitting spectacle of Michael Portillo and Alan Johnson wearing near identical stripy shirts on This Week (and that was before the horror of watching Will Hutton’s strange face in HD). Expect more reasonable levels of irritability to return in the next instalment.
Next week Lemmings, next week…