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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle