Morning Lemmings. Ok, so I guess I’d better pay lip-service to the Leaders Debate as it provided the backdrop to last night’s Question Time and the world seems to have got its knickers in a twist about it (except, strangely, the Mail and Express, who are going with volcanogeddon on their front pages today… Your boy not do too well then?). I’m not going to get too deeply embroiled in it all as we’ll be here all day, but here’s a few choice titbits for you:
1: The format is super weird, like an episode of Blind Date where the audience couldn’t be bothered to turn up, Cilla’s been at the catnip and the girl who does the picking is in a comma. I know that everyone’s bleating about what a revelation it all was but I have to confess that I found it half stultifyingly dull, half mindbendingly bizarre (at one point I began daydreaming about how cool it would be if Cameron’s head just exploded, showering Clegg and Brown with blood and propelling fragments of skull into Stewart’s face. See what it’s done to me?) Debate without a feedback mechanism is an odd puppy indeed.
2: Alistair Stewart is a tool and a very staccato one at that. I know it was hard brief, given the Byzantine rules involved, but constantly barking “MR BROWN! MR BROWN!” does not a Dimbleby make.
3: Clegg did do well. I’ve been very scathing about him of late, mainly because he comes across as the political equivalent of skimmed milk: Sensible but life drainingly limp. However, he did manage to look like someone with two, possibly three dimensions last night and clearly stood apart from Brown and Cameron as a person who may have some non-crap tricks up his sleeve. So well done Cleggers, your stock’s just risen in my book.
4. Brown wasn’t that bad. Yes, ‘the big list’ is a very worn and dull tactic and desperately shoehorning shonky jokes into places where you shouldn’t isn’t exactly edifying, but he did win some points on the ‘steady pair of hands’ scale. If I was him, I’d knock these efforts to humanise himself on the head because it isn’t fooling anyone. We know he’s a creature who dwells in a netherworld of abstract numbers and ethereal statistics, but that’s actually part of his appeal (in an odd sort of way). Stick with what you know, Gordy. Oh, and watching him try to bum Clegg was pretty entertaining.
5. The biggest revelation for me was just how bad Cameron was. I was fully expecting him to walk this, but it was not to be. The main problem is that his ‘reduce hugely complex and nuanced issues into a happy little tale of how cocking normal I am’ tactic that works so well on soundbites and news bulletins simply can’t sustain 90 minutes of scrutiny. Seriously, if he had tried to boil the global economic crisis down to some anecdote about how he was hanging out in a Spar shop, buying something excruciatingly normal amongst excruciatingly normal people one more time, I swear to god I would have forced lit cigarettes down my ears, hot end first. The flakiness of the Tories latest wheeze (power to plebs, yo?) also began to look suspiciously flimsy after a few minutes and I can’t help but think that they are really going to have to up their game to stop the other debates going sideways.
6. The set looks like is was borrowed from a daytime telly gameshow, possibly involving William G. Stewart.
7. When the candidates weren’t talking they looked like they were messing about with colouring-in books.
8. 90 minutes is a bloody long time.
So that’s that: A rather disorientating experience that left me salivating for the fillet steak of Dimbleby after the gruel of Stewart. Waiter!
The Menu: This is a bit of format tweak, largely to curb my tendency to waffle about the finer points of the various questions. So, from now on, the questions go up first, I get to have a bath and read the New Statesman a bit earlier while you don’t have to trawl through quite as much blabber. Everyone’s a winner, kapeesh? So, what’s on tonight’s menu?
Q1: Who won tonight’s debate?
Q2: The debate is being described as “historic” but will it make a difference?
Q3: Does the Tories ‘people power’ wheeze represent an abdication of the state in providing services?
Q4: Does Gordon Brown’s omission that he should have supervised the banks more closely mean he’s not fit to lead?
Q5: Is a hung parliament the political equivalent of volcanic ash (topical!)?
In The Red Corner: Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and somewhat boss eyed (see above) brother of David.
Another week, another Miliband, although this time we get the slightly more human of the pair. I’ve got quite a lot of time for Ed as he does seem to genuinely think about what he says and has an air of conviction that doesn’t spill over into sounding desperate. His career path hasn’t been quite as meteoric as his brother’s, mainly because he’s always been on the Brown side of the Labour fence, but to be honest, that seems to work in his favour as I’m natural suspicious of high achievers and their ilk. He also has much softer edges than David, mainly because he trades less in pure politics (which the younger Miliband excels at…. excels at far too much in fact) and more in ideas. That gives him a little more depth and a little less jaggedness. It was an easier show than it could have been for him tonight, considering Brown managed not to completely faceplant himself into the pavement while Cameron didn’t manage to live up to his own hype. Q1 was a pretty chushty affair that simply involved giving the obligatory props to ‘how great for democracy’ the whole shebang was, a few nods in Brown’s direction and a nice little crack at the Tories for Cameron’s China faux pas. Nothing of revelationary significance, but steady enough. Minor applause was the order of the day for Q2 as he needled the Tories again for Cameron’s weak effort and declared Gordon Brown to be a “man of substance”, but he overplayed this hand when he went back for a second bite and no-one would play with him. Q3 provided a rich seam to mine as it was pretty clear that the crowd weren’t on board with the whole ‘Big Society’ flakery and they dished out some love when he managed to big up the state without badmouthing the voluntary sector and generally harried Gove on some education do-dahs. Things could have got pretty difficult on Q4, but it seemed that the audience had made up their mind that this was going to be a fairly anti-Tory night and despite wheeling the standard issue ‘global recession line’ (this time working in references to “houses in Mississippi”… go on Ed! Paint a picture!) things did get sticky when an audience bought up that weird story about some department that had a “contemplation suite”. Miliband did the honourable thing in the face of this and dropped Ed Balls right in it (if in doubt, blame Balls) while the final question had him making some ‘we love constitutional reform now that the LibDems look like they might have a fighting chance’ gestures that didn’t look entirely heartfelt. So, all-in-all it was a pretty good turn and at the end of play he looked entirely unscathed. Some of this is down to circumstance. I’m guessing that the Leader’s Debate went way better than most Labour bigwigs hoped and the inevitable hammering he expected to take never materialised. Instead, all he had to do was not get over-cocky and just go with the audience, which he did and it worked. The other part of this is down to Miliband himself and the fact that he’s good at getting the pitch right. While his brother plays a very impressive offensive game, the political equivalent of Shock and Awe, Ed seems much more well rounded and flexible. He’s good in defence without appearing conceited and has the umph to take the fight to the other side as well, all of which goes in his favour. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m saying that this was some earth shattering display of statesman like qualities, but it was quite a nice, measured bit of play that sounded mostly convincing.
An above par 6/10
In Blue Corner, Michael Gove, long neck having (see above) Shadow Secretary for Children, Schools and Families and man made entirely of Play Dough
I have a hard time pegging Gove down. On the one hand he’s clearly bright, tougher than he looks (and he does look like his face was made by a three year old potter who’s been at the E-numbers…See Fig. 1) and tends to do quite well on the likes of Newsnight.
Like Ed Miliband, he’s more on the ‘ideas’ end of politics and he seems to be a lot better at nuance than most Tories are. Having said that, I have reservations about the ideas he comes up with (being mainly of the vague and woolly variety, dressed up to sound much more solid than they actually are), his body language points to a squirrel based ancestory and his ‘angry’ face is really irritating. It was a tough deal for him on this episode, considering he had only half an hour’s thinking time after watching his leader do a less than great job and the lack of feedback from the Leader’s Debate audience probably had him making wild guesses about how it went down with the public. The lack of response he got to Q1 (‘of course I love Dave but politicians “shouldn’t pass judgement” on this’…wtf?) was pretty much the shape of things to come while Q2’s little pop at LibDem immigration policy also failed to find it’s target. However, it was Q3 where things started getting messy and when he tried to explain why the whole ‘Big Society’ thing was so great (and he has his fingerprints all over this policy), he was treated to a full blown tumbleweed moment. Sensing that things were looking ominous, he rashly declared that he “loves” Shami Chakrabarti, only to have the subject of his affection turn around and call him a liar. Bad move. Q4 was a safer affair and a recitation of the standard Gordon Brown charge sheet and a sly little swipe at Law’s for being a banker back in the day seemed to do the trick. Moderate applause was his reward, along with a slight respite from the growing anti-Tory sentiment. Finally, he conjured up some thinly veiled warnings about a hung parliament for Q6 and then shuffled off, bloodied but not entirely unbowed.
Truth be told, he didn’t do so badly as the crowd were most certainly not in the market for the regular Tory line and as I said earlier, events conspired against him. If that had been May, Osborne or Lansley, I could see it degenerating into rout, but he did pretty well to keep a semblance of a defence up and although he comes across as quite odd, he isn’t totally unlikable. So bad luck Michael, that was a choppy crossing but you can take comfort in the fact that you didn’t throw up all over yourself.
A spirited, if not entirely successful 5/10
In The Yellow Corner, David Laws, Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and slightly David Caruso-esque ex-banker.
I haven’t been impressed by laws to date, mainly because there’s something a little jobsworthy about him (“pleeeeease let us have power”) and he can be a little over assertive, but he was in a great position tonight, given Clegg’s out-of-fucking-nowhere turn. Naturally Q1 was a love-in with Nick and a fall-out with Dave, all of which went down with predictable well while he continued to keep the pressure on Cameron in Q2. Q3 saw him do really well as he managed to knock Labour for the nanny state whilst also bashing ‘Big Society’ as being deeply divisive, something that clearly resonated with the audience and made him a whole stack of hay. I have to confess that I missed him on Q4, having to both go to the toilet and find a bottle opener, so no searing insights from me there while Q5 saw him quietly fade out, chuntering about this, that or the other . On the face of it, he seems to have won the political argument but I can’t really put that down to any particular personal trait. Ok, so he seems competent enough and there was nothing I didn’t particularly dislike about his performance, but I still can’t quite get behind him yet. Maybe that will come with more exposure and there’s every possibility that I’m just being a mardy old hack, but for now I am going to suspend opinion on him. Laws: Make me like you.
A technically victorious but not-quite-there-yet 6/10
In The Independent/Brainy One Corner: Nigel Farage, ex-leader of UKIP, ventriloquists dummy (see Fig. 2) and wearer of naff suits.
I’m going to say something rash now: Politics is a better place with Farage in it. Now hold on there, don’t phone the duty mental health team and arrange a sectioning just yet because this doesn’t mean that I agree with him about…well…pretty much anything, it’s just that he’s a genuine character . A demented, small minded demagogue of a character, yes, but a character nevertheless and characters add much needed spice to what can otherwise be a dull and overly dry subject. He also looks like a cad who’s just a little bit too dorky to be a proper cad and I imagine him being stuck at Cad HQ, doing the accounts while all the real cads are out shagging emotionally vulnerable countesses and swindling impressionable young nobles out of their fortune. That thought cheers me for some reason. Sadly, I was kind of disappointed with tonight’s effort as there was nothing he could get really off his tits about and he kept having to invent reasons to be crazy, usually by making totally unrelated topics somehow link to the EU. Calling the LibDems “the modern day CND” and a brief seizure about Gordy selling the gold looked like they could have developed into some awesomely batty tirades, but alas, it was not to be. Instead, what we mainly got was ‘blah blah referendum, blah blah throwing the doors open, blah blah”. Now I know that UKIP’s main (and only) selling point is the whole Eurobashing thing, but come on, you have to bolster that up with obnoxious opinions about other things as well if you want my continued tolerance of your outlandish worldview. So step up your game, Farage. Next time your own, I want to at least see some hair on the palms of your hands.
A disappointingly flat 3/10
In The I’m The Funny One/Just Like You Corner: John Sergeant, reassuringly un-handsom ex-journo and buggerer-up of Strictly Come Dancing.
Ahh, John Sergeant… while nature may have given you a pretty ropey deal in the looks department, it more than made up for it by blessing you with the most soothing voice in Britain. Seriously, it’s like swimming in a pool of Ovaltine and if ever anyone has to break some bad news to me, I’d like it if they could contact Sergeant first and get him to do it instead. He’s also one of the most reasonable sounding people on telly, taking his time to softly impart little nuggets of considered wisdom that seem to waft out of his mouth in a fine, sweet smelling mist. Tonight saw him being incredibly sympathetic towards Brown, swimming against the tide a little but getting away with it because it’s just impossible to be angry with someone who looks that much like a comedy cartoon sidekick. Worthy of note was his rather wonderful lambasting about the ‘Big Society’ issue, but unfortunately this got taken the wrong way by an overly eager audience member who thought he was being nasty about the voluntary sector and he had to crank his voice from ‘soothing’ to ‘ultra-soothing’ in order to extricate himself. Mostly though, it was good, thoughtful stuff and while I didn’t agree with it all (I, for instance, really want a hung parliament), it was said in such a way that it came across as it should: an opinion, not an existential threat to my beliefs system. Given that the prevailing wind in politics seems to be a very reductionist, with-us-or-against-us hurricane, it’s really refreshing to listen to someone who actually bothers to look at things in depth. So well done John, now come over to mine and gently lull me to sleep with some Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh. And some warm milk. And tuck me in. That’s enough now. You can go.
A wonderfully contented 7/10
In The There Goes The Format Corner: Shami Chakrabarti, OO gauge defender of Liberties and formidable Question Time performer.
If there’s one person who you can safely bet on to wipe the floor with everyone on Question Time, it’s Shami Chakrabarti. In some ways it’s a little unfair because pretty much no one would disagree that having their door kicked down by the police is something they’d rather avoid, but for the most part it’s down to the fact that she’s passionate, eloquent and doesn’t pander to anybody. She also (as my better half spotted some time ago) looks a lot like a school boy and I’ve often wondered how she’d look in traditional cap and blazer (not in a pervy way, you understand?). Well, thanks to the judicious use of commercially available photo manipulation software, that moment has now arrived. Behold, Middle School Chakrabarti (see Fig. 3)!
Ok, so it was a little weird having to type ‘boy in traditional school uniform’ into Google Images, but I feel that the end justifies the means. As always tonight, she did a sterling job, going with Clegg on the Leadership Debates, pouring scorn on ‘Big Society’ and generally making sure that none of the politicians got a free ride. The crowd were on board with her as they always are, even as she performed a fairly risky manoeuvre in which she implicated every one of us as a culprit in the credit crunch. That’s an important point right there and one that doesn’t get aired enough, mainly because people are too afraid it won’t go down well. Thankfully, Shami has no such qualms and will routinely point the finger, no matter how much of a holy cow the culprit is. I won’t get too carried away in praising her to high heaven as she does have a blessed position on the show, beholden to no-one and peddling an idea that’s almost universally agreed upon as ‘a good thing’, but there’s still an awful lot to like. So that was pretty much her lot and as usual, it was a very good lot which leads me to conclude that should ever the facility to gamble on Question Time exist, always go with Chakrabarti. You’ll be rich in no time.
A fully great 8/10
The Crowd: London
I had the deepest sympathy for the audience tonight, enduring as they did the full 90 minutes of Leaders Debate but without access to booze, fags, internet and things to throw at the screen. The strain was evident during the opening question and it took them a while to shake off the torpor that seemed to envelop the studio. However, once they regained consciousness, they proved to be a great crowd and one that was very much into Nick Clegg. The other interesting thing was that they were probably one of the most anti-Cameron audience we’ve seen all series which is saying something given that we’ve already been to Scotland and the North East. That’s not to say it was all one way traffic, but if I was in the Tories right now, I’d be seriously looking for that thinking cap of mine. One final thing that struck me about them: this was one of the first shows in a long time when expenses and ‘all MP’s are crap’ didn’t form the backbone of the audience argument. I’ve been quite negative about the Leaders Debates tonight, but if Clegg has somehow managed to drag the argument out of the Swamp of Culpability and into the Savannah of Possibilities, then that is good thing. A very good thing. But yes, generally they were a good bunch and made for a lively show. Members of note this week include a women who made a sentence out of seemingly random words (“more slightly a bit like a puppet show”), a guy who’s shirt looked like a tube of Cresta toothpaste and a women who forgot what she was saying before she said it. I fucking love it when that happens.
A refreshing and zesty 8/10
So Chakrabarti and the crowd carry the day. Well done to them and a ‘not a bad show’ to everyone except Farage. Come on Nigel! Stop with the non-crazy!
See yers next week.