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Laurie Penny trials Question Time drinking game ... and gets a political hangover

A new drinking game based on the ubiquitous programme gives much away about the robustness of political debate in Westminster.

Like the late, great Douglas Adams's towel-clutching anti-hero Arthur Dent, I never could get the hang of Thursdays. Somehow, most of them end up with me sitting by myself with a ready deadline and a drink of something horrible, shouting at the television. By myself but not, it seems, alone -- because thanks to the magic of the internet, the vicissitudes of modern politics and the boundless capacity of the British to creatively enable one another's alcohol consumption, we now have the cultural phenomenon that is the Question Time drinking game.

It happened like this: the tweeting classes realised that we were all drinking miserably in our living rooms in front of the same long-running political debate show at the same time and it would be much more fun if someone came up with some rules -- so someone did. You can imagine that by the time the show is broadcast -- it's recorded earlier in the evening -- most of the panellists and production team could already be sloshing their way to frantic oblivion, so it's all in good fun.

Dimble Dance

Enough with the preamble: here's how you play. You sit around in front of the telly with epic quantities of corner shop booze and a bunch of friends or, if you're a dynamic young gunslinger like me, by yourself with a bottle of Jameson's and your Twitter feed, and you watch Question Time and imbibe until the staid predictability of mainstream political debate is at all bearable. The rules are subject to amendment, but the principles of the game are sound. While the stirring theme music plays, you down your drink and attempt to do the Dimble Dance, which looks like a cabinet minister having a spasm in an Eighties disco, setting the tone nicely.

You then proceed to drink on the following occasions: every time the veteran chairman, David Dimblebly, attempts to crack a joke. Every time David Dimbleby confuses the gender of a questioner from the audience. Every time David Dimbleby says: "I'm afraid that's all we've got time for". Every time a contributor uses the phrase "political correctness gone mad". Every time a government panellist informs the audience that they "don't really understand what we're trying to do".

You drink again every time a minister blames anything on "the mess Labour left us in", and if the vanishing credibility of this sound bite as an excuse for imposed austerity elicits boos from the audience, which it usually does, you drink twice. This should leave you nicely battered by the time there's a break in questions for Dimbleby to say, with all the confident self-mastery of an Englishman attempting to buy condoms in a Croatian chemist's, "if you'd like to follow us on Twitter, here's our hashtag".

You get to down your drink whenever anyone echoes the sentiment "we're all in this together", or its less cheesy variant "we all have to tighten our belts". This is the most tiresomely enormous lie of our times -- the notion that we've all been living merrily beyond our means and deserve to suffer the consequences together. We may have all been to the same pre-crash party, but some were enjoying the free champagne while the rest of us stood serving drinks and smiling as our money was gambled away.

Now that the inevitable hangover has arrived, it's the rest of us who have to suffer. Meanwhile, our representatives shuffle and equivocate. Unfortunately, the fact that we can have a drinking game based on a few stock platitudes and still be proto-paralytic by the time the credits roll on Question Time says a great deal about the robustness of political debate in Westminster.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide