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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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.