My take on last night’s Question Time

Is the new government targeting the BBC’s main discussion programmes?

Two weeks on from my own controversial appearance on Question Time, I've just caught up on last night's edition, with Alastair Campbell, John Redwood, Max Hastings, Susan Kramer and Piers Morgan. Yet again, hilariously, the coalition failed to put up a minister on the BBC's live, flagship news and current affairs programme, watched by millions of people each week.

So far, since the formation of the new government and the advent of the "new politics", there have been three editions of QT. In the first (on which I appeared), the Tories and the Lib Dems refused to provide a minister, so the programme-makers turned to the former Conservative deputy PM Michael Heseltine and the backbench Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes (who, to be fair, did a not-bad job defending a coalition he so obviously has private doubts about).

In the second, the coalition decided to put up a big-hitter, the new Home Secretary, Theresa May. Hoorah! But last night's QT saw Redwood and Kramer (Tory backbencher and former Lib Dem MP, respectively) representing and defending the Con-Dem government, which refused to put up a minister allegedly because Alastair Campbell happened to be the BBC's designated Labour Party representative. (Can you imagine what a boost that must have been for Ali C's ego? Isn't the idea that the government of the country is running scared from him, a mere spin doctor, both hilarious and bizarre?)

From Media Guardian:

The BBC has accused the government of political interference after it refused to provide a ministerial guest for Question Time unless Alastair Campbell was removed as a panellist.

BBC executives said they rejected the demand and tonight's show went out without a representative from the coalition government.

Gavin Allen, the show's executive editor, posted a blog on the BBC website saying No 10 had insisted that Tony Blair's former director of communications was replaced by a shadow cabinet member.

"Very obviously we refused," Allen wrote, "and as a result no minister appeared, meaning that the government was not represented on the country's most-watched political programme in Queen's Speech week -- one of the most important moments in the parliamentary calendar."

It is understood that the cabinet minister originally pencilled in to appear was David Laws, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I can reveal that David Laws had also been approached by the BBC two weeks ago, to appear on the first post-coalition QT, but had refused to appear -- so this is the second time he has avoided being on the panel. (And I have to confess I laughed out loud when Campbell pulled out a framed picture of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, saying: "There's the man who should have been here . . . no bottle, new Bond villain." It was almost reminiscent of the Have I Got News For You "tub of lard" incident involving Roy Hattersley.)

I can also reveal that senior BBC sources believe the government is deliberately targeting their main panel programmes. One source tells me: "Downing Street has made it very clear to us that they have a problem with Question Time and Any Questions?."

So it's difficult to disagree with the shadow culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw:

It's extraordinary that in the week of its first Queen's Speech the government refused to put up a cabinet minister to explain its policies on Question Time because Alastair Campbell was appearing.

This curious decision comes in a week which has seen major government announcements on cuts, the Queen's Speech and welfare either leaked to the press or announced outside the scrutiny of parliament.

Along with their plans to pack the Lords with new Tory and Liberal peers and the dodgy 55 per cent rule, the coalition's talk of new politics sounds more and more like the politics of a dim and distant past.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

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

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