Morning Lemmings and welcome to another trudge through this week’s topical blabberfest. And a trudge it is this week, given that it was one of the more lacklustre outings. With that in mind, steel thyself and summon all your mental fortitude for this weeks QT Post Match Report, brought to you by the denizens of Glasgow.
In The Red Corner: Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and noted demander of scheduelled cuppuccinos.
I have to admit that Liam Byrne freaks me out a little. His rise up the ranks of the Labour party has been way too quick for someone who appears to be running a sizable charisma deficit (elected in 2004, under-secretery in 2005, full blown minister in 2006, in the cabinet by 2008… either he has some remarkable hidden talent or he knows where a lot of bodies are buried) and in terms of public persona, he’s incredably hard to draw a bead on. I saw him on Newsnight the day before this episode of Question Time and was struck by just how thoroughly he strips all the emotion out of everything he utters. That’s not to say he isn’t totally unflappable because he does display a few tells when he’s under pressure (like speeding his speech up and sometimes dropping his ‘t’s) and although he’s not quite as dull as Des Browne (a man who is forcefully boring), there’s something going on that I can’t put my finger on. I don’t like things that elude my fingers being put upon them. He also looks a little like a cross between William Hague and a baked bean, but that’s by-the-by. Tonight’s little jaunt with Liam was pretty much a textbook case of general ‘staying on-message’-ness, kicking off with the obligatory budget question (‘has Darling “shot Labour in the foot” with his red box). Byrne’s response was straight down the party line (as one would expect from a Treasury minister), emphasising their pop at the rich and warning of mad-slasher-Tory-antics. Some complex little skirmish involving numbers and such like broke out between himself and Dimbleby, but nothing of great import occured. That’s ok I guess. It was a boring budget (although not a bad one, all things considered) and it’s pretty rare that anyone from a ruling party picks up any QT love on the back of them. The second question, (‘can Gordy survive until the election with all the strikes loomin’), elicited a rare stumble when he said Gordon Brown will survive “until the next election” and then got jumped on by Dimbleby. After some quick backtracking, he was right back to the script, packaging up the strikes as a matter between companies and unions but Dimbleby knew he’d rattled him and got stuck in with some mischevious Bob Crowe quotes. Sensing that the plan was in grave danger of going awry, Byrne muttered a few platitudes and withdrew under the smokescreen of a non-point from some audience member. Lucky escape. Question 3 (“Is Lobbygate indicative of the dying days of the last conservative government”) saw the plan back on track (in theory, at least) as he spoke of his “sheer fury” at the matter whilst looking very un-furious as well as cramming in another outing for that well worn “the best disinfectant is sunlight” line (which the audience fell for and rewarded him with some nice little claps). Dimbers goarded him a little by poking around the Mandelson/Adonis angle but Byrne was not to be drawn and retreated in good order. He got a little more proactive later on when he went for in some “public have a right to know” action, but that swiftly devolved into a confusing little skuffle between himself and Warsi about some inquiry that lasted 20 minutes. I wasn’t really sure what was going on (and neither were the audience, judging by their lack of response) but it looked like Warsi sort of won. Don’t quote me on that though. The next question (is the SNP exclusion from the leaders debates “an afront to democracy”?) had him making the pretty reasonable point that until they fielded a candidate in every constituency, it wouldn’t really be fair if they did, but after that he sloped back to his bunker and looked on as everyone else duked it out. The final question (is the expulsion of Israeli diplomats enough of a response to “an act of terror”) had the potential to get messy but it was one of those last minute affairs and he was saved by the bell after some “strong relations with Israel”/”need for trust” hedge betting.
Again, I find myself a little non-plused by Byrne. On the one hand, the stuff that comes out of his mouth is all pretty safe, largely reasonable and wholly uncontroversial, but that general lack of human spark/frailty make him seem a little odd and disconnected, as if the wheel is turning but the hamster isdead. I don’t know, maybe I’ll warm to him in time but for that happen, he really needs to give me something of character to hold onto. So that’s your job for next time Liam, grow a little soul.
Baroness Warsi has been on my radar for quite a while now and I’ve been somewhat critical of her tendency to over extend herself on Question Time in the past. It usually goes like this: She starts off with some fairly solid stuff, gets in some early successes and then wazzes it all up the wall with some ill-conceived all-out offensive. However, I do like her tenacity and even if she does make some pretty junior errors, she takes her licks well. So, how’s she doing? True to form, she got off to an ok start with the budget question even if the material was a bit a dull (constantly chanting “deficit” does not a strategy make). Considering she’s a Tory and Question Time was in probably the most un-Tory place in the world, ‘ok’ is good enough. However, she soon started to overplay her hand when she produced this really contrived little laugh when Byrne was whittering on about cuts. It wasn’t that her point wasn’t valid, it was the way she had to almost shit this laugh out. It just sounded over the top and a little cynical. Question 2 (the rampant communism apparently sweeping the nation) was a similar affair as she started with an OK-ish joke about Gordy visiting the Queen before wrapping it all up very quickly with “the country’s unravelling!”. Again, not brilliant, but then again, no-one threw any cans of OPT at her so I’m happy to call that a draw. What did it for her this time was that when Liam Byrne said the Tories were “salivating” at cuts (a word he used twice in the space of five minutes. Probably a glitch in the matrix) she let out this theatrical moan that this was “really unfair!”. Again, the point may have been valid, but she said it such a way that made me instantly lose any sympathy. So far, so Warsi. However, things did begin to pick up on the Lobbygate question when she had a fairly good rant about the horror of it all and called for an inquiry. That was warmly received by the audience and she got a happy little shower of applause. That was followed by the inconclusive and confusing scrap with Byrne, but credit where credit’s due, she earned some hard claps there. The leader’s debates matter was more sedate as she went through the obligatory “Scotland is important” motions but made it clear that Salmond will “never be PM of the UK” (which is entirely true) while the Israel question brought forth nothing of any relevance. So here we are again with Warsi getting some things quite impressively right while horribly misjudging some others. However, I do think she’s improving and given enough practice, she could become a pretty formidable front-of-house type. I don’t think that she’ll necessarily make a brilliant minister, but she’s certainly interesting to watch. And that’s worth a bob or two.
A work-in-progress 6/10
In The Yellow Corner: Julia Goldsworthy, MP for Falmouth and Camborne, tireless Facebook campaigner for Cornish network recognition
Julia Goldsworthy should, by rights, be an ideal Question Time panellist. She’s young, not unattractive and bright, but there’s something that just isn’t quite working for her. I first started noticing it when she went on the scorn-inducing First Time Voters Question Time. That should have been the ideal vehicle for her, but somehow she didn’t manage to make as much hay as I expected her to. After this episode of QT I’m pretty sure I know what it is: It’s the not-quite-convincing urgency in all of her responses. All through the show, she seemed to be hellbent on crowbarring her way into every question before it was her turn and while I’m quite the fan of proactive strategies on Question Time, this tack just simply didn’t work. Rather than coming across as genuinely concerned (which I think she probably was), she ended up looking a little desperate and contrived. Take the first question, for instance. She started with a fairly straight forward ‘government think people are idiots’ line and then hurriedly pulled cutting Trident out of the bag (a wise move as Faslane is only down the road and Glasgow has never been too keen on being nuked… wimps). The problem was that she looked in such a manic rush to get the missile on the table that the point got lost and she ended up being cut off by Dimbers. Not to let this get in the way, she tried again, but the audience remained unswayed, even when she upped her bet to Eurofighter. If that wasn’t bad enough, Salmond was up next, took a leisurely stroll about the place, stole her Trident point and was then saturated in applause. Harsh. Stinging from this episode, she tried to barge in at the end of the question with a blurted “Vince Cable!” (“Matt Damon!”) but again, was met with silence. She did win some favour from the audience later with some good stuff on Lobbygate and the leader’s debates, but throughout most of the show she looked twitchy and preoccupied. That’s a shame because most of the things she said were pretty good and she does seem to be in politics for the right reasons. However, she really needs to take some deep breaths and calm-the-fuck-down because it doesn’t matter what you say, if it seems like you’re pinging off the walls at Mach 3 while you’re saying it, people simply won’t take it in. I hope she can get to grips with this because she’s got a lot of potential and it’s a shame to see it squandered. So how about it Julia? Some herbal tea, bit of Massive Attack on the ipod ? The world could be your lobster.
A fatally flawed but not irretrievable 4/10
In The Independent/Brainy Corner: Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, SNP Leader and Scourge of the Union
I don’t know what it is about Alex Salmond, but something about him reminds me of Silvio Berlusconi. It’s not the scandal/lothario/verging on dictator angle that sets me off (in fact, Salmond seems relatively free of anything too untoward, minus the odd lunch expenses jiggery-pokery), but there’s something there, albeit something muted (like Berlusconi after drinking three bottles of cough medicine or overdoing the tamazepam). I think it’s probably something to do with way he often tries to portray himself as quietly confident, but instead sometimes comes over as cocksure and smug. He also bears a remarkable resemblance to Churchill, the eponymous insurance company mascot (see Fig. 1), although that could be a blessing in disguise as Churchill is a very lovable corporate mascot.
Tonight, he started out with the wind on his back, brazenly stealing Goldsworthy’s Trident point on the budget question and then tacking on all manner of unpopular schemes to cut, such as ID cards. That went down very well and he seemed to have control of the commanding heights at this point, but failed to consolidate his position with a long and largely irrelevant ‘blah’ on the strikes issue (my notes from the night actually read as “blah” and I remember him talking for quite some time on that one). Luckily, this appeared to only be a temporary snag and he soon had the audience back on side with a thorough damning of lobbying in all it’s form before threatening to run nationwide with Plaid on the leader’s debates saga (everyone knew it was a rhetorical point, but at least it was a bit of a laugh) and labelled the whole affair as a stitch-up. Good times all round. He was also the only panellist to really break cover on the Israel question, suggesting that the government action was nothing more than a “gesture” and was thusly well received by the masses.
On the face of it, it was a strong performance (he is a good showman) and there are a lot of areas where I find myself agreeing with Alex Salmond. However, and for the life of me I can’t think why, there’s just something about him that I simply don’t trust. I’m happily prepared to accept that it’s probably one of those random instances of someone rubbing you up the wrong way for absolutely no reason, but no matter how objective I try to think about it, I simply can’t shake it. Maybe it’s because any thought I have about Scottish independence inevitably leads to a mental image of Buckfast swilling hordes of pale Highlanders laying siege to Newcastle and deep frying our young. That’s not rational, I know, but we all have our demons.
A sturdy 7/10
In The I’m The Funny One/Just Like You Corner: Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group and stern looking money bloke.
Ok, ok, so this guy’s a million miles away from either ‘funny’ or ‘just like you’ (unless you happen to be an All Powerful High Priest of Capitalism, in which case I take it all back) but I don’t want to mess with the format. It’s taken me 9 weeks to get the bastard thing standardised and I’ll be damned if the capricious vagaries of the Question Time production team are going to get the better of me on this one. The fightback starts here. Anyhoo, just who in the hell is Martin Sorrell? Well, it turns out that he somehow made a massive advertising conglomerate out of a company that made wire shopping baskets and is the guy who came up with the Conservative’s “Labour Isn’t Working” slogan of yesteryear (something that prompted much blowing of one’s own trumpet later on in the show). I’m never quite sure why they invite the heads of massive corporations and companies on QT because most of the time, they play the neutrality card to hell and back so they don’t have to say anything that could have a possibly negative impact on sales (Sir Stuart Rose, I’m looking at you). To these guys, politics is a sideshow, a necessary evil that takes away from the much more important job of making piles of money. Only if politicians have the temerity to start seriously messing about and getting in the way of this will they start to get involved and then god help any poor soul who gets in the way, but as this is an election year which is looking increasingly difficult to call there was precious little chance of anything substantial passing his lips. And so it was. He did some numbers stuff about the budget, made it abundantly clear he was ‘apolitical’ and then damned all politicians for thinking people were “imbecilic”. The crowd were into that, but he really didn’t give anything away other than a general disdain for politics. Naturally, on the strikes question he poured scorn on the unions so no surprises there, but something interesting did occur on the Lobbygate issue. Before he had a chance to speak, Dimbleby mentioned that Sorrell himself had a hand in the lobbying industry. This led to the somewhat bizarre outburst of ‘hooray for me’ for the ‘Labour Doesn’t Work’ campaign (which seemingly came from nowhere) and some sly little moves to throw Dimbers off the scent. This mainly involved invoking Blair’s South Korean oil interests in the hope that the crowd would pick on this as the big issue rather than the lobbying industry as a whole. The crowd started to take the bait but Dimbleby was one step ahead and started reading out some ominous sounding bumph from a lobbyist promo brochure which led to some squirming from Sorrell and a lively little offensive from Salmond. At this point, the crowd turned on him and he ended up looking worse for wear when he tried to get off the hook by saying the Ashcroft affair was even worse. Two wrongs don’t make a right, Sir Martin. Sensing that things might have gone south in a big way, he spent the rest of the show skulking in the shadows, although he came close to an opinion on Israel when he rejected the notion that it was a “terrorist state”, but saying little else. I don’t know, I guess that in some ways, having proper business types on Question Time makes for good anthropology, but they’re so damn cagey that it rarely makes for incendiary telly and with the exception of the Lobbygate moment, this was pretty much the case here.
A cards-too-close-to-chest 4/10
The Crowd: Glasgow
Alright, alright, so yet again I have fallen into the trap of pernicious national and regional stereotypes. Here was me, expecting a harsh sounding, braying mob of angry Glaswegians when what we actually got was quite a mild bunch who (with the exception of the Lobbygate and Israel question) remained mostly unenthused by all that occurred. I guess they got behind Alex Salmond a bit, but I’m putting this down to the newly created Loudribs 2nd Law of Question Time Dynamics which is that all regional parties get a +3 saving throw on their own turf. If you don’t know what a saving throw is, look it up. And then try and guess how many friends I had as a teenager. There was one guy who caught my eye though, a nervous but very wise sounding man who made a great comparison between the industrial disputes of the Winter of Discontent and the present unrest. Apart from that, nothing really leapt out at me and I must say I feel a little short changed. Come on Glasgow, you are all in possession of one of the most easily weaponised accents in the world and you have no idea how much it scares English people. Use it or lose it Glasgow, the choice is yours.
A highly mediocre 5/10
And with that, I am done. My dreams will now be haunted by the special unit of Glaswegians who will be sent to hunt me down for giving out bad marks, pending the inevitable invasion. Roll on Stevenage.