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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.