Morning Lemmings and praise be: I finally feel better. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for my telly which has been afflicted by a nasty SCART (the most hateful connector ever devised by evil scientists) related disorder and consequently, everything I watch is now washed in an eery green hue, as if I’m peering through the sides of a dirty fishtank (I’ve rejigged this week’s title picture to try to convey just how unsettling this effect is). SCART related prattle aside, this week’s Question Time is somewhat of a biggy, what with all the Comprehensive Spending Review business going on and considering it was taking place in Middlesbrough (which I will from here on in refer to as MBro as I don’t like typing ‘Middlesbrough’… It makes me say ‘Middlesbruff’ in my head and that just sounds silly), I was expecting fireworks. Was this the case? Well, let’s just see.
Q1: How can the government talk of fairness with cuts that’ll devastate the poor, the unemployed and the disabled?
Q2: Will the cuts push Mbro over the edge?
Q3: Britain used to rule the waves. Why are we now dependent on our NATO allies?
Q4: How come the banks are getting away with it when everyone else suffers?
In The Blue Bit Of The Blue/Yellow Corner: Phillip Hammond, Secretary of State for Transport and multimillionaire.
Man, does Phillip Hammond look washed out. Seriously, I feel about 60 years old every time I look at him, what with that grey suit, that dishwater tint that hangs on him and those sad-looking, downward slanting eyelids. Not only that, but the way he presents himself is equally as soul sapping as he appears to be running a pretty hefty charisma deficit and seems to approach politics in a rather mundane, by-the-numbers sort of way. Obviously, there must be something going for Hammond as he’s managed to climb pretty high up the ranks of the Conservative party and has amassed quite the private fortune along the way. But whatever ‘that’ is, it’s a mystery to me and I was quite surprised to see him on tonight, given that there was a fair chance it could turn into a bloodbath. Then I thought about the alternatives: Lansley? His department’s had some good news which would give him a veneer of protection, but that timeshare spiv look that he’s got is too much of a liability given the circumstances. Gove? Again, good news for his department, but he’s a true believer and true believers can sound quite mad, which isn’t exactly great at a time like this. IDS? He’s a pretty good performer these days, but circumstances rule him out, what with benefits taking such a big hit. May? Nah, she’s a QT liability and 20% cuts to the police force are hardly going to endear her to the public. And Clarke? Ha! Not a chance! He’s way too capable of independent thought. So with all that in mind, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to send Hammond on. After all, at least his department had some good news and while he’s hardly going to inspire the general public and put a song in their hearts, at least he’s dull enough to not cock anything up too majorly. So yes, I’m chalking him up as a counter intuitive canny pick.
Performance wise though, it was a really odd bag and one that can be largely summed as ‘Blame Labour’. Now, no one in their right mind would contest the fact that Labour did some pretty piss poor things in their time and it’s part of the game that any new government blames those that went before them. However, when it becomes the cornerstone of your narrative it starts to lose potency and very rapidly at that. This was clearly the case last night as every question Hammond answered on the night was loaded with huge quantities of ‘Blame Labour’ and at first, it worked, garnering some reasonable applause in the early stages. However, by Q2 it had started to sound like a mantra and there was even an outburst of booing when he wheeled it out again in Q3, making him look like a bit of a prat along the way. That said, he did have a few other tricks up his sleeve, notably his hammering of the ‘Fairness’ line in Q1 (describing the cuts as “the opposite of wicked”), but again, this didn’t hit the mark and felt much more like a regurgitation of spoon fed platitudes than any sort of heartfelt plea for understanding. Later attempts to highlight the positives of the North East’s economy in Q2 ended with mixed results as he got some crowdlove for mentioning Nissan, but this gain was later reversed when he said that Sunderland was growing strongly and everyone laughed at him (something which also happened in Q4 when he said in his ‘cross’ voice that the government were going to force the banks to sign the code of conduct). However, the real kicker for the night was when an enterprising member of the audience bought up the small subject of the Dispatches report that said he’d been a bit cheeky with his tax arrangements. Dismissing this as “unfounded inuendo”, he was then forced by Dimbers to admit that he had transferred shares to his wife. Jeering ensued and his dignity was the first casualty of the night.
Now, on paper, that looks terrible, but I have to admit that it could have been much, much worse. Yes, there was nothing to really commend his performance, but he did stick in there and there was some support for the Tory viewpoint, despite the fact that they’ve just announced cuts that sound even worse than the ones that originally gutted the North East in the first place. So, although I’m giving him a fairly crap mark for being generally nondescript and lacklustre, I’m also going to chuck one more on purely for the fact that anyone clapped him at all. Given the circumstance, that has to be worth something.
A dingy 4/10
In The Red Corner: John Denham, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Iraq War resigner of note.
Whilst I was doing my prefunctory google of tonight’s panelists, it occurred to me that John Denham is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, he’s been about for ages, sitting in government (and heading up some pretty hefty departments) since 1997 and he’s also been a regular face on our TV’s. Yet for the life of me, I can’t remember a single thing that he has said or done and I even needed reminding about his resignation over the war (which is the sort of thing I would remember). So what’s going on here? Is he a forgettable person? Well no, not really. He speaks well, looks comfortable in his own skin and smiles rather a lot, although not in a disingenuous sort of way. Does he have a history of buggering things up? Not really. Sure, he was a member of a government that ended up being wildly unpopular, but his credentials are pretty clean, doubly so as he at least he had the gumption to resign over the Iraq. So what is it? Well, it might just be that he’s a congenital klutz. It’s not his fault, it’s just that whatever he does and no matter how hard he tries, it just ends up not working quite as expected.
This tendency was apparent right from the start last as he attempted quiet a deft little maneuver in Q1. Faced with Hammond’s ‘Blame Labour’ line of attack, he didn’t go straight for denial and tried to reframe the argument around the fact that things would be an awful lot worse if Labour hadn’t borrowed money. The execution seemed fine, but somehow a sneaky little line from Hammond about Labour borrowing before the crisis derailed it and he was suddenly on the defensive again, flailing about quite badly until he managed to cobble together a half-hearted stab about growth being downgraded. That seemed to knock his confidence and he then took a backseat for most of the show, although he did land a good Forgemasters related punch in Q2 and also came across as quite genuine in Q4 when he admitted Labour hadn’t exactly been angels.
In many ways, Denham represents the flip side to Hammond’s performance in that he should have done really quite well tonight, but only just about managed to hold it together. Like last week’s Red Team outing, some of this is down to Labour not really knowing where they are right now, but I also can’t help thinking that Denham is in some way cursed. In theory, he’s got all the attributes that were required to make last night an easy win, but yet he didn’t and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Highly puzzling.
A strangely lacking 5/10
In The Green Corner: Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green party and Link (of Zelda fame) lookalike (see Fig. 1).
Poor old Caroline. The Greens have spent an eternity trying to get someone into parliament and were no doubt hoping to play on their novelty value to advance their agenda as best they could. Unfortunately for them though, they didn’t reckon on a coalition government sending the novelty ratings into outer space and as a consequence, the Greens are now even more of a sideshow than they were in the first place. Bad luck there Caroline, bad luck. However, she did get to cash in some of her hard-earned democratically elected chips tonight as the LibDems are nowhere to be seen. Whether this was by their design, I do not know, but they must be breathing a collective sigh of relief as I can hardly envisage an eager queue of yellow tied volunteers, champing at the bit to be bollocked by the general public.
Anyhoo, back to Lucas. As always, it was a very straight forward but largely good performance that I’m not going to dwell on too much as she’s already had plenty said of her in previous Match Reports. By and large, it was pretty textbook ‘to the left of [insert party here]’ stuff that was well received and harvested much applause. The one thing I did notice that was slightly different from usual was that she was really going at a rate of knots last night, reeling off huge lists of the potential harm in the cuts and even going so fast that her voice got squeaky at one point. Still, it was fairly assured sounding stuff and out of all the party political opponents, she clearly won. So good marks for you Caroline and I’ll see you the next time the LibDems can’t be bothered/aren’t allowed to show up.
The standard 6/10
In The Khaki Corner: General Sir Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff and meddlesome soldier.
I think it’s fair to say that as a breed, generals are pretty odd. Some of this I put down the fact that they spend most of their time devising ways to kill people, whilst the rest is probably due to having to spend your life in fancy dress, hardly something that promotes sanity. But yes, in the main they are an odd bunch. However, there is an even odder breed and those are political generals. Some countries absolutely beam off them, like America for example. They’ve had their Washingtons, their Grants, Eisenhowers and may someday have a Petraeus, but on the whole, we’ve spurned them as being simply too odd and even a little bit dangerous. Dannatt however, appears not to have received the memo stating these facts and last year, he made all sorts of noises about becoming a Tory advisor (with an eye towards a peerage and a seat in the cabinet) only to discover that Brown was going to everything in his power to stop this. And stop it he did, but Dannatt, although somewhat out on a limb, is still about and is pretty much the go-to guy for the media should they ever wish to indulge in some defence related mudraking… or Question Time appearances just after the Strategic Defence Review.
In actual fact, Dannatt turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, fudging his response to Q3 into an exercise in fence-sitting, whilst his response to all the other questions seemed well-meaning, but with a hint of unspoken paternalism that stopped people from getting behind him. And that’s the problem with political generals: They only really get anywhere if they win something big. As it stands, we’re as about as far away from a ‘win’ in Afghanistan as we ever were and trying to paint Iraq as any sort of victory is just self evidently wrong, so I’m afraid your out of luck on that front, General Sir Richard Dannett. I’d stick to the fancy dress and killing people if I was you.
A very middling 5/10
In The Brainy/Independent Corner: Polly Toynbee, Head Girl of the left leaning commentariat and bete noir of the right leaning commentariat.
Oh Polly, Polly, Polly… Back in 2007, everything was looking so good for you. Blair (who you warned us was up to no good) finally got the boot, your man Brown (who you told us was up to some very good things) got in and we could all look towards a gilded future of flying cars and Post Neo Classical Endogenous Growth Theory. Unfortunately, things started going very sideways, very quickly after that as it turned out that Brown wasn’t quite the political whizz you made him out to be and before long, you too were calling for his head on a plate. The unfortunate effect of this was that all that credibility you built up over the years started to ebb and it wasn’t long before you yourself were considered to be politically damaged goods. Sure, you never really had any fans on the right but after ‘Brown FTW!/Brown Sucks!’ saga, the left also began to turn on you and things started looking a little dicey.
Actually, I think that this turn of events is a bit of a shame as I do have time for Toynbee. She does genuinely care about fairness and while she’s been sort of bracketed as the left’s version of Melanie Phillips (albeit with a little more going on upstairs), I don’t think that’s entirely justified, as was in evidence last night. Take Q1: Here, she tried to get the point across that these cuts will be very damaging for Mbro but got ambushed by Dimbers asking whether it was Labours fault. When she said that this “wasn’t entirely true” the crowd turned on her and she started looking rattled, aware that she is seen as a cheerleader for the party and that this is not a good thing. This is where she’s different from the big name right-wing commentators because they would have ploughed on regardless, oblivious to the notion that they could be wrong. Toynbee sort of attempted that, but you could see doubt and hesitation in her, as if she knew and was bothered by the fact that people didn’t believe her. Would this happen to Phillips? Fuck no! Phillips would have barely broken a sweat and would be right back at the audience, shouting at them until they were too shell-shocked to offer any resistance and would then move on to call for someone (probably in the public sector) to be tarred and feathered. Toynbee though, is more vulnerable than that.
That’s not to say that she didn’t have good moments and points were made that the crowd liked, but when they were they took a long time to get going and any moves in the right direction always appeared slightly fraught and wobbly. As I said before, I think this is shame because there’s a lot to like in Toynbee’s views and I think she does what she does for the right reasons. But something is just not quite right with her at the moment. I don’t know if it’s that she feels genuinely haunted by her relationship with New Labour or that she’s just sick of always getting it in the neck, but yes, it’s an odd thing to witness. Then again, she has probably been exposed to quite toxic levels of Peter Mandelson back in the day and that really can’t be good for you.
A troubled 5/10
In The I’m The Funny One/Just Like You Corner: George Pascoe Watson: Former Murdoch man and ex of Kate Burley.
I don’t know much about Pascoe-Watson except for the fact that it’s nearly impossible to say his name without sounding really posh. Try it: “Hellooooooooo…. my name is George Pascooooooooooe-Watson”. See? Posh. You can, if you try quite hard and throw in a few words here and there, jiggle it over to an almost Westcountry type lilt (“A’right moi luver, George Pasco-Whaaaatson ‘ere!”) but it’s a bit of a stretch and there’s far more mileage to be had in ridiculing the rich. Anyhoo, George Pascoe-Watson. I don’t really know much about the guy except that he used to be political editor of The Sun and seems to hold News International approved views on most things in life. Consequently, most answers were along the lines of ‘private good/public bad ‘ and ‘stuff that could potentially hurt sun readers is bad’, but he did manage to sneak a little fib into Q1 by saying that our national debt was just basically paying foreigners (when actually 80% of it is held by British people and institutions). In terms of audience response, he did OK, getting a fair old portion of the crowd behind him, but you know what? I just got the feeling that I didn’t like him that much. In my mind’s eye, I can see us sitting next to each other on a plane, heavily engaged in an undeclared but very real battle for the armrest. Neither of us would back down, nor we utter a single word. Instead, we’d just sit there, quietly fuming under a tidal wave of rage that was building in us both. For 23 hours. We’re flying to Australia for some reason. I’ll shut up now.
A forgettable 5/10
The Crowd: MBro
As expected, this was a lively episode, but not for the reasons I had anticipated. I was pretty sure that given it’s location and scale of the cuts, there would have been a very heavy anti coalition feeling in the air. However, it wasn’t that clear-cut and if I had to sum up this episode in a word, it would be ‘messy’. Yes, arguments from the left did seem to go down a better than the ones from the right, but not by the margin I had predicted and no one got a free ride on the night. There was also a sense that Labour have an uphill battle in getting people to forgive the mistakes of the last 13 years and that the Tories are succeeding in framing the debate around Labour’s ‘deficit denial’ (a clever bit of politics and one that Ed Miliband really needs an effective counter to). However, the coalition also have a big problem with the plan for growth and if this episode was anything to go by, people are less than convinced that private sector is going to ride to the rescue and rather frightened by the seeming absence of a Plan B.
As for the crowd themselves, they were very vocal and there was some genuine anger in the room, especially from some guy with a side parting who looked like he’d spent the last 24 hours winding himself up so that he could be super angry on the show. Audience Member of the Week however, goes to the gentleman with the bow tie. I haven’t got a clue what he said as I was too busy writing down ‘OMG! GUY WITH BOW TIE!!!!!!!’ but he was a welcome addition to the show and I hope very much that others will emulate this look on future episodes. I like seeing guys with bow ties. I always think they’re either going to perform a magic trick, cure cancer or bring me something really nice to eat, all of which I approve of. More of this, plz.
A fractious 7/10
Ok, that’s you’re lot. Please feel free to get back to fearing for your jobs. Good times!