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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.

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Ukip's "integration agenda" is another lurch away from the mainstream

Ukip's only chance of survival is on the nativist fringe. It won't be a happy - or successful - existence. 

After Ukip leader Paul Nuttall failed to steal a famous by-election victory in Stoke-on-Trent, his party’s militant tendency offered a prompt and simple diagnosis: the party was just too nice.

Two months on, with Nuttall now pledging to ban the burqa, sharia courts, new Islamic schools, subject girls from at-risk backgrounds to yearly female genital mutilation checks and make race an aggravating factor in some offences, they are unlikely to making those same complaints. Of the many criticisms one can make of the controversial policy blitz, a surfeit of niceness isn’t one of them – even if Nuttall is comparing himself to Gandhi. But what explains Ukip’s lurch deep into Breitbart territory – and what does it mean for the future of the party?

It’s tempting to chalk this one up as a victory for the hardliners who derided Nuttall – who, absurd though it seems now, was Ukip’s unity candidate – and his attempts to court women voters with a softer, “Nicekip” platform. It’s true that Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, loathed by the fags-and-flags wing of the party for their wet anti-Faragism and prim sensibilities, are safely gone. Liberated from the strain of, erm, having an MP, the true believers have taken back control.

That neat analysis quickly falls down when one takes a look at the chippiest defenders of Ukip’s new “integration agenda”: Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn. Once the pair were at the vanguard of the push to unseat Farage and chart a friendlier tack into Tory seats in the Shires. Now they try and spin policies that could be justly criticised with a favourite Carswell slur – “ugly nativism” – as a sort of noble muscular secularism. That they of all people are endorsing the new line underlines just how much trouble Ukip are in. Deprived of their ownership of Brexit, the party has little, if anything, left to offer the political mainstream.

The consequences have been felt more keenly inside the party than in the country, where Ukip has plunged to below 5 per cent in some polls. Plenty would argue that the party – even at their high watermark around 2014 – never operated within the mainstream currents of political thought anyway, instead dragging the Tories to the right. But it was always an uneasy and at times barely coherent coalition between the authoritarian and libertarian right, united only by their rejection of Europe. For the latter, Ukip isn’t about opposition to the sensibilities of polite society but compatibility with them. Theirs is a focus on grammar schools, hard graft and flat taxes, not smearing Romanians and hanging child murderers.

Whatever the likes of O’Flynn and Evans say, though, Ukip has now ceded that libertarian ground it once had claim to. Disgruntled and departed Kippers point to Nuttall’s loss in Stoke-on-Trent Central as the reason why.

“Since the focus on the EU has gone, and after the election in Stoke, there have been people within the Ukip NEC trying to drive the party towards the far-right,” says Tariq Mahmood, a practicing Muslim and self-styled libertarian who stood for the party in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent South in 2015. He has since joined the Conservatives, and complains that efforts to court the aspirational middle classes and British Muslims (among whom he says Ukip are now “100 per cent” finished) have been jettisoned in favour of what an essentially nativist platform. While Ukip stress that their beef is with cultural practices and not Islam, Mahmood believes that argument is a mere figleaf - and Ukip, he says, know the distinction will be lost on many people. 

“It was an uphill struggle even previously to try to persuade individuals that we were a libertarian party and that we were not hostile to any individual belief,” he adds, ruefully. “Now, with what Peter Whittle and Paul [Nuttall] have said on integration, and with the prevailing mood with the NEC, the strategy seems to be to create division.”

The logic behind this ideological retrenchment is clear enough. Though Ukip stood in 624 seats at the 2015 election, insiders acknowledge that they are unlikely to reach anywhere near that total this time. Its chances of winning even one seat are perilously slim, as is painfully clear from Nuttall's prevarication as to whether he'll stand or where exactly. Resources will instead be poured into a handful of target seats that broke heavily for leave last June, and the party’s (white) core demographic courted much more ruthlessly. 

But those resources, historically scant anyway, have been depleted by its rightward lurch: both Mahmood and Owais Rajput, a former parliamentary candidate in Bradford East, speak of a flight of Asian members from the party. “There’s nothing left for me, other than to resign. It’s not only me – there are lots of other British citizens of Muslim faith who are following me as well,” he told me on the day Ukip dropped its new policies. “Their policy, long-term, is to try to create division in local communities, which is very, very dangerous.”

Both agree that Ukip’s future is as an ethnic nationalist party, which Nuttall and those around him have vigorously denied. But if that is the party’s strategy, it’s a witless one. Ukip has already swallowed most of those votes already, as the decline of the British National Party shows, and the electoral ceiling for those politics is a low one. The party may well tighten its grip on its small demographic core, but will hasten the flight of softer members and voters to the Tories.

Its breakneck change of pace will also bodes ill for its survival as a cohesive fighting force. There will inevitably be further tension among its febrile cohort of elected politicians. Nuttall’s foreign affairs spokesman, West Midlands MEP Jim Carver, this week resigned his post in protest at the burqa ban proposal (“I’m an old liberal,” he told me. “You’ve got to have that freedom of choice.”). He insists he won’t be quitting, and likened Ukip’s internal wrangles to those in other parties. “What you’ve got to is call out people you disagree with,” he said. “Look at the stick that people like Tom Watson is getting from Momentum! This isn’t just happening in Ukip. There’s a tug of war going in all political parties.”  

But Carver is a Ukip member of abnormal vintage, having joined the party in 1996. For others the allegiance cannot and will not hold as the party’s public face gets uglier and its electoral positioning even more uncompromising.  As the exodus of its 2015 supporters to the Tories shows, Ukip’s electoral cachet is a much more ephemeral thing than the parties of old. Senior figures protest that policing Brexit remains key to its policy platform.

Its new strategy underlines how the party cannot remain a broad church defined entirely by its opposition to Europe. “All I know,” Carver told me, “is that I’ve got to be true to my principles”. Recent events prove for most of the wetter wing of his party, that will mean leaving.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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