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10 car crash election interviews with Tory politicians

Strong and stably gaffe-prone.

One of the best things about election campaigns is the premium footage you get from knackered politicians under pressure on camera. Greg Knight’s Alan Partridge hostage video. Theresa May's panicked eyes running through fields of wheat. Tim Farron inviting innocent activists to “smell my spaniel”.

But we don't focus enough on the constant gaffes made almost daily by Conservative politicians and cabinet ministers – in what is supposed to be a tightly-managed, slick campaign. As I wrote recently, the same scrutiny and mockery directed at, say, Farron’s views on homosexual sex, or Diane Abbott mucking up her policing numbers, is just not targeted at Theresa May and the Tories in the same way. We should be asking these questions; but we should be addressing them (and unpicking the answers) with the same intensity to everyone.

So in that spirit, here’s a run-down of the worst election gaffes made my Tory politicians, which rather undermine the “strong and stable” slogan we’ve all come to know and love:

1. The Prime Minister doesn’t know where she is

Theresa May betrayed the ordinary people she’s supposed to be reaching out to by completely forgetting which one of their sad little settlements she has deigned to enter that day.

 “I’m pleased to come to this…er…this particular town,” she told journalists.

2. The Chancellor has no idea how much money he’s spending

Philip Hammond bungled the figures for funding HS2 on the BBC’s Today programme.

“How much is HS2 costing?” asked John Humphrys.

“About £32bn,” the Chancellor chanced.

Thirty two billion?” echoed Humphrys, incredulously.


“Not £52bn?”

“Err, over, it’s over a – I mean, there’s a huge amount of contingency built on to the budgeting for these projects.”

3. Work & Pensions Secretary fails to defend Tory spending holes and admits they will have to be fixed post-election

Damian Green suffered an absolute mauling on Andrew Marr when he was unable to account for numerous spending “black holes” in his party’s plans, when presented with a hard copy of the manifesto – having criticised Labour for exactly the same thing earlier in the interview.

Green was eventually forced to admit that cuts to pensioners’ payments would be part of the extra £8bn NHS funding promised – but not costed – by the Tories. “We are now going to target winter fuel payments on those who really need them and that money can be targeted to the health and social care system,” he glumly concluded.

When asked how much pensioners would lose, he rather limply had to confess they would only find out after they had voted: “That’s what we’re going to consult on after the election.”

4. The PM is caught out on “dementia tax” U-turn

During a grilling from Andrew Neil on the day her social care funding policy (the “dementia tax”) unravelled, May squirmed in her seat as she had to deny U-turning on the policy – when she had.

In a rather limp euphemism, she said it was a “clarification” rather than a “U-turn” – even though the line had changed in the space of a few days from the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt saying they had dropped the funding cap to announcing a cap.

Scrabbling for an explanation, and failing to address why the Tory policies are uncosted, May admitted that the manifesto is a “series of principles” rather than policies.

5. Defence Secretary condemns Foreign Secretary’s analysis of terrorism

Michael Fallon bungled an interview on Channel 4 News, in which he was trying to attack Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy stance, by instead condemning his own cabinet colleague, Boris Johnson. When criticising what he believed was a quote from the Labour leader about the origins of extremism, it was revealed to him that he was actually talking about Johnson’s analysis.

“Isn’t it possible that things like the Iraq war did not create the problem of murderous Islamic fundamentalists, though the war has unquestionably sharpened the resentments felt by such people in this country and given them a new pretext?” quoted presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

Fallon pounced, saying, “Well, I don’t think you should allow pretexts” – before it was revealed that those words are actually Johnson’s.

Flustered and awkward, Fallon spluttered that he didn’t “agree” with his own colleague, before completely giving up: “Well I would have to see the words you are trying to quote to me, I don't have them in front of me.”

6. Culture Secretary unable to answer terror security questions

In an excruciating exchange, Karen Bradley was unable to deny that the Tories are responsible for cutting armed police officers – repeatedly refusing to answer whether the number had fallen.

7. Home Secretary accidentally admits to police cuts

During an interview on Woman’s Hour, when questioned about falling police numbers, Amber Rudd veered wildly off-message and referred to May’s “police cuts” while she was in office – a phrase the Tories never use; their line is that they have increased funding of armed police offers.

“I think at the bottom of your question is this suggestion that the police cuts have – the police reductions have in some way contributed to the terrible events that we’ve seen recently,” she faltered.

8. Foreign Secretary has no clue about UK government’s own Saudi report

Put on the spot about a delayed Home Office report into the funding of terrorist groups, Boris Johnson looked flustered and embarrassed when he struggled to say anything coherent about the contents of the document or even its existence.

“You’re suppressing it, aren’t you?” asked Channel 4’s Michael Crick, pushing him on whether it points toward Saudi Arabian funding.

“No, errrr, I I, but I, but I – but that we have plenty of stuff Michael that, err, you know, that we, err, that we don’t publish,” he replied, panicked. “I will dig it out if it’s, if it, if it is – and have a look at it if that’s what you would like me to do, but I, I, as far as I know we do not have the confidential report – the kind that you described.”

9. The PM blurts out about “running through fields of wheat” in awkward interview

In a cringeworthy interview, May went into a mini-meltdown when unable to answer a question about the naughtiest thing she’s ever done.

“Oh goodness me, erm,”she blurted, struggling to reply. “I, well, I suppose the, uh… Gosh, I – do you know, I’m not quite sure.”

When asked again, she added: “Well, nobody is ever perfectly behaved are they?” before the bizarre response: “I mean, you know, I have to confess, when me and my friends sort of used to run through the fields of wheat, the farmers weren’t too pleased about that.”

10. Tory MP and ex-Cabinet minister doesn’t know the minimum wage

In a painful interview, Andrew Mitchell failed to even come close to guessing what the minimum wage is – while simultaneously trying to boast about his party’s pledge to raise it.

When asked by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire what the current minimum wage is, he floundered, desperately mumbling “it’s less than nine pounds”.

“Correct, what is it?” she persisted.

“It’s errr about six pounds, I think,” he said, squirming in his seat.

“That is way out . . . There must be people in your constituency who are on the minimum wage?”

“So, ermm, well, as I say, we’re going to try and get it up to nine pounds,” he replied, defeated.

“Would you like to know what it is?”

“What is it, £8?” he asked, still digging.

“It’s £7.50, for the over-25s.”

Mitchell also failed to say how many council homes the government has built, how many people are on the housing waiting list, and then shifted uncomfortably when asked how many properties he owns.

“I live in my constituency and I have another house in London,” he said. “And I have another home as well, but, but err. I live in my constituency and in London and Members of Parliament are obliged to, you know, do that…”

“But you own three properties?”




You can defend politicians from gotcha interviews all you like – a pub quiz approach to policies is rarely the most illuminating way of testing their strength. But the Tories constantly attack Labour’s “incompetence” and have based their campaign on being more “stable” and “trustworthy” with money. So they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with the kind of sloppy gaffes for which Jeremy Corbyn and Abbott would never be forgiven.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?