Morning Lemmings. After last week’s anticlimax I was hankering for a more substantial undertaking and the panel for this episode looked good on paper. However, good paper panels have often let me down so it was with baited breath that I plunged into the behemoth that is Question Time this week. So, to hell with this idle banter and onwards we must go, onwards into the depths that are Stevenage.
In The Red Corner: Alan Johnson, Home Secretary, ex-postie and oft mooted Brown antidote.
I don’t know if it’s just us, but my better half and I have always been aware of something very pigeon-like when it comes to Alan Johnson. Maybe it’s the beady eyes, the raft of grey suits or the way his head wobbles about when he speaks but there’s something there that leads us to believe that he actually lives in a nest atop Nelson’s Column and and survives on a mostly crumb based diet (see Fig. 1). That aside, I’ve got a big soft spot for Johnson, largely down to the fact that he seems very human (well, human/pigeon, like if The Fly starred a dumpy David Bowie impersonator and it was a dove that had got into the teleporter) and he doesn’t entirely fit in with the rest of New Labour. He’s also one of Question Time’s most proficient defensive players and has a gift for sounding sincere when breaking bad news, a rare trait in an age when hard-truths usually end up spun into an sprawling mass of bullshit. Take tonight’s first question, which was about whether the rash of business leaders who came out for Cameron’s NI cut had “sealed the deal” for Cameron. This would present a problem for most New Labour meat puppets who are usually afraid of offending anyone (hence their love of triangulation) and especially the Holy Cows of Enterprise. Not Johnson though, who was pretty blunt about the fact that of course business wouldn’t like this, but tough shit. The money’s got to come from somewhere and at least we have a plan as to where that is (unlike the Tory’s). That’s actually surprisingly refreshing, watching a Labour front bencher basically telling the high and mighty of commerce to go and get bent. Of course, it didn’t entirely go his way and he was harried by both Clarke and the audience for effectively taxing the recovery, but he didn’t yield on this one and managed to land some fairly heavy blows on the Tories for their lack of coherence on the economy.. Nice work. Question 2 was pretty straight forward (did St Vincent of Cable win the Chancellors debate?) as Darling had acquitted himself well that night, but I was a little disappointed to see him resist the urge to stick the knife into George Osborne. I know that a lot of Johnson’s strength lies in his coming across as genuinely nice guy, but it has to be tempered with at least a little killer instinct and to miss an opportunity to really hammer the weakest link in the Tory chain is frankly a little limp. However, he did win back a few points when an audience member got all hard left about things and he countered with a list of Labours achievements (a recurring tactic throughout the night). That got him his first smattering of applause on an evening where Labour should have been entirely on the backfoot so kudos on that one Pigeonface. The next question (is the re-emergence of Blair a help or hindrance to Labour?) had the potential to go horribly sideways, but he managed to defuse the situation with a canny little flurry of nudge-nudge-wink-wink (an unspoken ‘you guys know what I’m thinking but you also know I’ll be in a whole heap of trouble if it slips out’), before flipping the whole issue 180 degrees and laying into Cameron’s ‘heir to Blair’ routine. The brief outburst from Littlejohn that followed was swiftly suppressed by again going through the list of Labour achievements (which again got applause) and he emerged unscathed from what could have been a sticky wicket. The outcome of Question 4 (is Brown a big fat liar?) was less certain and Johnson wisely decided to keep a low profile, venturing out only to defend the immigration statistics as ‘an honest mistake’ before reminding everyone that Chris Grayling has dabbled in similar roguery on the knife crime stats. To the extent that he himself came out relatively unscathed, it was a good move and by the end of it, it was Littlejohn who looked to be the biggest twat. The last question (does Lumley deserve an apology from Kevin Jones?) was a no-win situation for him (as is pretty much any situation involving a scorned Lumley), but he did his best to switch the heat over to the Tories for not having done anything about the Gurkha s on their watch. It wasn’t entirely successful, but yet again, any anger that emerged appeared to be directed at Labour rather than at Johnson himself. And that was pretty much it from him.
All-in-all, it was pretty impressive performance given the circumstances and it highlighted the fact that he excels at fighting proactive and fluid rearguard actions whilst simultaneously appearing to be bracingly normal. It’s like when you turn up to the airport and find that you’re plane’s been cancelled, the hotel’s burnt down and your luggage is on it’s way to Kinshasa. In this situation, the last person you want to talk to is the overly aggressive holiday rep who bungs you some half-hearted platitudes, blames everyone on earth but steadfastly refuses to accept any responsibility themselves (a Ryan Air version of Jack Straw for instance). Instead, you want the guy who calmly takes you off to one side, admits that this is a all horrendous fuck up, seems genuinely sympathetic to your plight and subtly implies that the bigwigs upstairs are way out off their depth. It flies totally in the face of New Labour orthodoxy, but it’s a potent and powerful tactic in the right hands and Johnson gets it very much right. So well done Pigeonface. Although I wouldn’t mind seeing something a little more predatory from you, you can fly back to your Nelson’s Column homestead safe in the knowledge that you did a good job. Go and treat yourself to some discarded chips and to hell with the crumbs.
A proficient and authentic 8/10
In The Blue Corner: Kenneth Clarke, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, jazz hound and good-times Tory.
I sometimes have this dream where I’ve been caught poaching on George Osborne’s estate. I’m bundled off to some barn by his squires (which in the dream include Hague, Lansley and bizarrely enough, Widdecombe dressed as a man, moustache and all), tied to a chair and then subjected to a very landed-gentry form of roughing up as Osborne looks on with that perma-sneer of his. Just as all appears lost, Ken Clarke walks through the doors, calmly beseeches my antagonist to “Go easy on him, chaps” and then tells them that he just saw local government killjoy sizing up Osborne’s planning permission infringing gazebo down in the meadow. Gripped by this alarming new development, the assembled mob run off with pitchforks and 4-10′s , determined to stop the tentacles of authoritarianism encroaching on their green and pleasant land. Ken then cuts be free, offers me a pull from his hip flask and apologises for their over-exuberance. “They just get a little carried away” he says before giving me a comforting pat on the shoulder , slipping me a tenner for a taxi and showing me the quickest way to town. Thanks Ken! You’ve saved my bacon yet again! Yes, it’s true. I have a slight political crush on Ken Clarke and during the dreary days of the Major government I must confess to developing a textbook case of Stockholm Syndrome around him. At the time, there was little to love about government. Howard was criminalising everything, Widdecombe (this time dressed as a woman…sort of) was all up in my face and Portillo had yet to chill out. Yet despite all this I could take comfort that somewhere, deep inside the Treasury, there was Ken Clarke, listening to Charlie Mingus, puffing on a stogie and getting slightly tipsy. Somehow, that thought got me through. So what of Ken last night? Pretty darn good, as is usually the case. The first question about the NI cut gave him ample room for manoeuvre and he wasted little time into laying into Labour for taxing small business. The crowd were largely (although not wholly) on his side and although he got clobbered by Dimbers on ‘efficiency savings’, he somehow managed to bluster his way out of it. Question 2 (Chancellor’s Debate) was a bit of a landmine (thanks to barely contained tension between himself and Osborne), but he did a good turn in pretending he wasn’t really bothered by it all and gave a slightly less-than-convincing endorsement of Boy George which ticked the party line box but also implied that he wasn’t completely blind to the glaring weakness in the Tory team. It looked like it was played for laughs but there were plenty of between-the-lines messages in there. He also managed to bust out some of his trademark ‘damning with faint praise’ routine where waxed lyrical about how Cable was a good guy, but he never has deal with anything serious because he’s a LibDem. Vintage Clarke. The Tony Blair question time saw him sounding very forthright about how Gordon Brown was the real baddy and also taking the piss out of Blair’s tan , much to the amusement of all, while the immigration stats point had him being pretty fair about the whole deal (‘it’s all a bit naughty, stats are sacred’ type stuff) until he was ambushed by Dimbers on Chris Grayling’s knife crime number mischief. This caught him off balance and he flapped around a little (you can tell when Clarke’s in a flap because he stutters a little) before falling back on a rather desperate ‘it’s all very complicated’ defence.. The final question (Gurkhas) was a hurried affair, but he did manage to make the point that it was the Commons that had defeated the government when it came to their right to stay. So there we have it. A typically robust and impressive performance from a man whose primary virtue is being just so bloody reasonable. I know there are a million issue on which I disagree with Ken Clarke, but I will always give him the time of day because there seems to be a genuinely interesting person underneath it all. That, and he’s a troublemaker. I like troublemakers.
An as-we’ve-come-to-expect 7/10
In The Yellow Corner: Sarah Teather, LibDem Spokesperson for Housing, former Baby of the House.
Who’s this collection of interlocking spheres? Why, it’s Sarah Teather! That may sound cruel, but I don’t mean it from a bitchy angle. I’m simply fascinated that someone can be entirely formed out of such geometrically perfect circles (seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised if she could recite pi to a million intervals, so spherical is she). Anyhoo, I’ve got a lot of time for Teather. She’s by far the most impressive of the younger LibDems, her opposition to the war was eloquent and categorical and she’s proven herself to be a solid Question Time performer. Given the opposition that she was up against tonight, I rather feared that she would be drowned out but happily, this was not the case. The opening question had her socking it largely to the Tories for their parroting of the mythical ‘efficiencies savings’ line and she got a fair bit of support from the crowd for her efforts. Question 2 was an absolute doozy (did Cable win the debates?), especially as Littlejohn was going out of his way to desecrate the shrine of St. Vince and thus incurred a heavy bout of Mail-damning from Teather, much to the delight of the audience. The Tony Blair number had her rightly pointing the ‘war’ finger at him and the crowd response once again highlighted the fact that this is very much an live issue, no matter how much Labour (and the Tories) pretend it isn’t, while a late attack at Cameron for aping him also did some damage. The question on the immigration stats saw her in a less aggressive posture, chiding Littlejohn for being “unfair” to Brown whilst simultaneously castigating Brown for not taking enough care, all of which sounded pretty fair. Finally, she got the last word on the Gurkhas, calling Labour “bad losers” and wisely staying on the right side of Lummers.
Given the company she was keeping that night, this was a pretty impressive performance. Where Sarah succeeds is in coming across as sincere and principled, but not blind to nuance. It’s not entirely perfect and she does display some signs of ‘Goldsworthy Syndrome’ when she tries to barge in on questions, but unlike last week’s LibDem panellist, she does it in a way that doesn’t appear overwrought or needy. So well done Sarah, you took on some very old, skilled hands and lived to fight another day. Kudos.
A resolutely spherical 7/10
In The Independent/Brainy Corner: Richard Littlejohn, Daily Mail Columnist, right wing foghorn.
Sigh… Must I write this guy up? In the interests of fairness, I suppose I must, but there’s little of merit to say about someone who doesn’t appear to have any redeeming features. Littlejohn’s Question Time gameplan is always as thus: Identify the lowest common denominator on any given subject and then relentless plumb the depths until the opposition are too exhausted to contest you. That’s it. Tonight’s particular line of attack more or less amounted to ‘Tax is bad, politicians are shitbags and Brown is the biggest shitbag of them all.’. Most of his answers resided within this rather tired, limited framework and the only point of note was when an audience member baited him about the BNP admiring his column. This bought forth a biblical sounding “WITH DRAW THAT, YOUNG MAN!” to which he obligingly did (“fair enough”), but it was clear who the audience were clapping for. It’s not the fact that I fundamentally disagree with 99% of everything Littlejohn says that winds me up, it’s that his methods are so crude and brutal. Having someone who’s a little ‘out there’ is vital to a good Question Time, but they’ve got to bring at least a little something to the table in terms of style. Littlejohn does not. All he brings to the table is a casserole of contempt with a side order of intolerance. That’s a dish I will always pass on.
A depressingly predictable 3/10
In The ‘I’m the funny One’/'Just Like You Corner’: Victoria Coren, poker champion, columnist, comedian and of-late-omnipresent TV bod.
I really don’t know where I stand on Victoria Coren. On the one hand, she’s a poker champion (which is always cool, doubly so if you’re a woman), can have genuine turns of wit and sometimes writes some OK stuff. On the other hand, the comedy is a little patchy, she seems to try too hard to come across as clever and her ‘jolly hockeysticks’ accent cuts through me like a knife. By the end of this episode of Question Time, I was pretty much of a similar opinion but I reckon that the main element is that I simply can’t get a handle on what she believes in. Most of her responses on the night started out vague as she played for time, thinking of something brainy and witty to say before rambling on a while and then she’d suddenly tack some on-the-hoof joke to the back of them. Sometimes the jokes were OK (the ‘Tony Blair as violent ex’ turn was pretty good) and the audience seemed to like them, but the substance underneath was shaky. Take the first question (NI) for instance. Her response was a round-the-houses ‘they’ve lost our trust’ lament (but dressed up to sound shrewd and canny) that somehow morphed into a call for better accounting in government. I get what she was driving at (as did the crowd, who did clap), but the message was in a grave danger of being lost under this need to make everything sound terribly bloody brainy. Fair enough, she was very reasonable on the ‘is Gordy a liar’ question as well as the Chancellors Debate one, but I always felt she was thinking too hard about what she was saying, as if terrified that she’d be caught out as a fraud. Don’t get me wrong, it was an unpleasant affair, but it did leave me strangely non-plused. A little more heart and a lot less head Victoria, that is what you need.
An oddly perplexing 5/10
The Crowd: Stevenage
After last weeks disappointing Glasgow affair, I was praying that tonight’s rabble would be better but was unconvinced that Stevenage (which resides in the Meh-Belt that orbits London … hardly creativity central) could come up with the goods. How wrong I was. Once again, it seems that my shaky grip on socio-geography has let me down and eaten-hats are the order of the day as the Stevenage crowd turned out to be great. What was interesting about tonight’s show was that that it appeared to be largely good natured affair, but never veered off into cosiness. I suspect that part of this is because Johnson, Clarke and Teather actually seem to like each other but the audience had a role in this as well, mainly in the way that didn’t have any firm favourite and applause seemed to be doled out on merit rather than through any tribal instinct. On top of this, they were by no means a pushover and also managed to resist the temptation to embark on one-dimensional tirades. Notable show-goers that night include the aforementioned Littlejohn baiter (Point Of The Night goes to he) and a church treasurer who displayed the most emphatic clapping I’ve seen to date. Seriously, this guy looked like he was going to clap his hands clean off. So well done Stevenage. Hertfordshire has just gone up a notch in my book.
An even-handed and enlivening 8/10
Right, that’s your lot. Johnson and Stevenage reign supreme, closely followed by able performances from Teather and Clarke. Good show, QT, good show.
Have a Good Friday, y’all .