Morning Lemmings. As is usually the case, I’m going to start with my customary threat to keep this week’s post-Question Time report very brief. Yes, yes, yes, I know I’m beginning to sound like an awful lot of mouth with precious little trousers, but I mean it this time and here’s why: Last night I had band practice for the first time in around 8 months and as a result, I can barely feel my fingers, what with all the high tempo melodic hardcore thrashing that form of the basis of what we do. Add in to this the fact that I also picked up Street Fighter IV in the Steam sale and I’m left with not hands, but gnarled claws that seem to creak and groan their way around the keyboard. So yes, I am truly suffering for my ‘art’ today. Enough of my lamentations and on to what turned out to be a truly Bizarro World rendition of Question Time. Say hello to Ipswich, Lemmings.
Q1: With the Treasury saying that there are going to be huge cuts to the public sector, are we on the road to ruin or the road to recovery?
Q2: Who’s right about prison? Ken Clarke or Michael Howard?
Q3: Is the emergency cap on immigration just a Band Aid for a bleeding wound?
Q4: Is the government going back to the old Tory mantra of ‘on your bike’ with regards to benefits?
In The Blue Bit Of The Blue/Yellow Corner: Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, ex-Tory leader and volume turner-upper.
Once upon a time, Iain Duncan Smith was pretty much the personification of the Tory party at its lowest ebb. Cast into the wilderness after the 1997 election, I really enjoyed watching the Conservatives effectively eat themselves for a few years and in this orgy of self destruction, IDS was a key figure. Picking up the reigns from Hague (who was just way too odd to hold the job down), Duncan Smith managed to turn what was already a dire situation into a complete and utter clusterfuck by a) wielding absolutely zero charisma, b) trying to make up for zero charisma by acting all tough (which is pretty hard when you look like a 50 year old toddler) and c) giving Private Eye writers the easiest 2 years of their life by gifting them with a near endless supply of shonky lines/policies/CV embellishments. Needless to say, the Tory party reached breaking point and did what it tends to do best: Wanton regicide.
Following his unceremonious exit, IDS seemed to be destined to live out his fate in much the same way as most failed Tory leaders do (Hague being a notable and incongruous exception to the rule): Wandering the Desert of Ignominy until someone bothers to give you a peerage and/or a column in The Telegraph. However, in Duncan Smith’s case something very odd happened. After a brief stroll through the barren wastelands of obscurity, he suddenly decided to get rather interested in poverty. Coming from a guy who’s time at the Tory helm was marked by some very bombastic Old Right drum beating, this seemed to be a very odd turn of events and people paid him very little attention, convinced that the trauma of rejection had driven him quite, quite mad. But nevertheless, he persisted and by the time Cameron had risen to power, he seemed to actually know a thing or two about the subject. Fast forward a couple of years, and what’s this I see before me? Why, it’s IDS, sitting comfortably on the front benches and not only that but sitting on the front benches, talking what appears to be a some sense.
For a default Tory sceptic like myself, witnessing the conversion of IDS from Hardcore True Blue to Bleeding Heart Red Tory has been an awkward experience that tends to leaving me feeling out of sorts, but I must confess that on the evidence of this episode, the change seems to be the real thing and not just another strain of Hug-A-Hoody posturings. Starting with Q1, he got away quite lightly with some ‘Greece/countries broke/hell in a handcart’ type stuff that for once, played well with the audience but it was Q2 where he really got in his stride. After a preamble full of social worky type terms (like “polysubstance abuser”) he suddenly started looking very serious and cranked that volume right up. “I sound a bit passionate because I really am” said he and for once on Question Time, it worked (people are usually lying their face off when they pull the ‘passionate’ line). Bolted on to the back of this was some ‘system in a crisis!’/’we’ll all suffer!’ cries and the job was a good ‘un. Q3 was a little ropey (especially his rather half hearted footy joke), but he turned it around on Q4. Now this question could have been really tricky, considering that on the face of it, the policy does have some pretty dubious connotations. However, he again slipped into that super-serious ‘I’ve spent the last 5 years knocking about on council estates’ mode and he actually managed to make it sound like it might be something other than a Tory ploy to deport all welfare claimants to the Isle of Man. Ok, so his “We cut NI!” response to an audience member who asked what they’d done about jobs was slightly rubbish, but the way in which he came across for the bulk of the question was as a man who had seriously thought about this stuff and was coming up with policies because he had genuinely thought about them. Kudos, IDS.
So that was him and I must say, I was caught off guard by it. Yes, he was playing to a largely friendly crowd who were receptive to the Tory line, but there’s more to it than that in that he projected a believable image of someone who does actually care about peoples’ welfare. Whether this translates into policies that do actually work has yet to be seen and I wouldn’t go so far as saying that his filled me with hope for the future, but I will venture than I’m less scared than I would usually be of a Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary. And that’s quite the achievement.
A convincing 7/10
In The Red Corner: Alan Johnson, Shadow Home Secretary, ex-postie and Bowie look-nearly-a-like.
Not content with shaking my world view with IDS’s sudden outburst of rationality, this week’s Question Time continues on its Bizarro trajectory with a quite uncharacteristic performance from all round man of the people, Alan Johnson. I’ve said before that since the election, Labour panellists seem to have slotted into the opposition slot quite well. Finally free from having to defend the indefensible week in, week out, most of them have appeared much more relaxed and actually seem to be enjoying the novelty of harrying the coalition without all the hassle of having to do anything about anything. Considering that Johnson is far and away the most human member of the Shadow Cabinet, my gut told me that he would be in his element now and could turn his talent for sounding reasonable into quite the potent weapon. Yet it was not to be and in actual fact, he came across as a bit of dick.
Given a different crowd, Q1 might well have gone a lot better than it did, but as it was, his ‘Road to Ruin’ and ‘just where in hell are all this jobs going to come from’ pitch failed to ring a bell with anyone. However, it was Q2 where things started getting a bit ugly and when presented with the ‘does jail work?’ question, he lashed out at the Tories for being ‘soft on crime’ and suddenly became a dogged defender of New Labour’s penchant for locking everyone up. Now, I expect this sort of thing from the likes of David Blunkett or John Reid, but from Johnson it just sounds wrong and at odds with his otherwise sane temperament. Q3 did contain some valid stuff about the immigration cap being “snake oil”, but again, the audience weren’t biting and stony silence was the order of the day, much to his chagrin. Finally, there was Q4 and here he committed a bit of an error by saying how much he’d love to hear Duncan Smith worm his way out this one. As it happened, IDS not only wormed his way out, but actually sounded genuinely sapient and all Johnson could do was then try and extract himself with a no ‘money argument’. Now I’m not saying that that point isn’t valid, but he had to deliver it whilst off balance and that made it look somewhat desperate.
So yes, this was not the Alan Johnson that used to be able to mop our brows and cure our ills every time that New Labour dropped a clanger. In power, he was a formidable defensive player, able to smooth the harsher edges of Blairism’s more authoritarian traits and adept at appealing to the common good. What we saw on this episode however, was a man who is still obsessed by Labour’s legacy and hasn’t been able to adjust to his new position as a centre forward. True, he wasn’t exactly on friendly territory last night, but that doesn’t mask the fact that his performance was overly aggressive, overly partisan and slightly twatty. And that, I’m afraid, is a damn shame because underneath it all is a decent guy, but one who is still stuck in a world that no longer exists.
An unexpectedly fumbled 4/10
In The Independent/Brainy One Corner: Prof. Mary Beard, brainy bookworm and Classicist of note.
I know very little about Mary Beard (except that I like her name. I wish my last name was ‘Beard’. It would go well with my beard), but I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. For a start, she does the whole ‘red wine, Moroccan solids, hemp clothing, child of the 60’s’ thing in way that somehow manages to avoid being utterly nauseating (a tough act to pull off) and also seems to harbour some pretty good opinions. Out of all the panellists tonight, she far and away had the most leeway to take whatever line she wanted and by and large, she pulled it off. Q1’s acknowledgement that “All I know is that I know I don’t know” but “I don’t like how it’s shaping up” set the tone well and applause poured forth, much in the same way that her ‘3 months for riding first class’ anecdote did on Q2 (not to mention her scuffle with a smug looking audience member who went down the ‘prison’s a right larf’ line. She got a “have you ever been to a prison?” slapdown for her efforts and ended up looking like a right tit). Q3 was light on substance but contained a well received quip about students needing to get Holy Orders to study that went down well while Q4 turned into some little chunter about some Ruth Kelly report that no one cares about. That was received with some puzzled looks and nothing else, but overall, it was a pretty solid effort in which she came across as pretty clued up, but also quite grounded. And for me to say that about someone who looks so much like a Womad attending dreamcatcher weaver is quite something, so well done Beardy, you’ve acquitted yourself well.
An encouragingly unhippyish 7/10
In The Independent/Brainy One Corner x2 (?????): Camila Batmanghelidjh, Yoof champion and sartorial nutbar.
She’s all about the kids! She dresses like a fruit salad laced with bad acid! I can barely spell, let alone pronounce her name (except for the ‘Batman’ bit)! It must be Camila Batmanghelidjh! Yes, that’s right, the authentic voice of youthly worthiness is upon us and once you get past the sheer madness of her get-up (especially the fingerless/thumbless gloves), she’s actually pretty sound. Virtually all her responses hinged around some sort of ‘think of the kids’ angle, occasionally spiced up with some other ‘right on!’ attitudes, but it wasn’t done in a way that winds me up, so nice work there. However, the really interesting thing to watch was her sizing up IDS. Like Batmanghelidjh, I too work in the voluntary sector and our default position is to be terrified of whatever the Tories are proposing. We’re all feeling the cuts already, there’s more to come and we’re dreading the rolling back of the state as it means that many of the services we rely on to do our jobs simply won’t be there any more. However, I got the sense that she, like myself, couldn’t bring herself to write off Duncan Smith and although she didn’t go so far as to give him an outright endorsement, you could see that he had her interest. Interesting times indeed.
A perfectly acceptable 6/10
In The I’m The Funny One/Just Like You Corner: Simon Heffer, True Blue Telegraph Columnist and puffy looking type.
Name: Simon Heffer
Appearance: Much like a boiled sweet, possibly orange flavoured (see Fig.1).
Likes: Low taxes, using the words ‘wretched’ and ‘poor’ in close proximity of each other, ‘family’ and other ‘bedrock’ type things.
Dislikes: A big state, lefties, druggies, scroungers, Europeans, paedos, rapists, crims, liberals, humanity in general, etc, etc, etc.
Most likely to: Look a little sweaty whilst bemoaning the collapse of civilisation.
Ok, ok, despite my better judgement, I suppose I’d better give him a little more page space… Here we go!
Q1 was your standard Deficit Bollocks, Q2 was a bunch of ‘it’s complicated stuff’ question avoidance, Q3 was all about ‘sorting out’ illegal immigrants and Q4 was a sustained session of wanking over low taxes. Let’s just say I’m not Heffer’s biggest fan. Yes, he’s not as rabid and torrid as Phillips or Littlejohn, but he’s still a pretty one dimensional attack dog who gets on my nerves and I’m going to wrap it here before I say something I regret.
A regrettably predictable 4/10
The Crowd: Ipswich
As I mentioned at the start, this was a really weird show. Not only were some precious assumptions of mine thrown into doubt, but the format was slightly wonky (what with there only being two party political panellists) and the crowd also freaked me out a little by applauding absolutely bloody everything anyone except Johnson said for the first 40 minutes before becoming very subdued in the final leg. By and large, it was the pro-coalition section who won the day and I think it’s pretty safe to say that Labour’s goose is cooked when it comes to Ipswich. There’s only one Audience Member of Note this week and that goes to the Scottish guy with the pony tail who spoke in that slow but forceful ‘I might be drunk and dangerous but you’ll never really know’ manner. He called for all MP’s to be locked up and then managed to short circuit the Tyranny of Dimbers by totally cutting in on a question without even being pointed to! So impressed was I with this one man insurgency that I haven’t got a clue what he said. Well done sir. Carry on being quietly threatening in a Scottish manner.
A bucket of oddness of a 5/10
2500 words! That is relatively short! I can come through on a threat! See you next week, Lemmings.