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28 May 2010

My take on last night’s Question Time

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

By Mehdi Hasan

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?)

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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.

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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.