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23 January 2019

First Thoughts: Diane Abbott vs Question Time, Prince Philip’s missing seat belt and Corbyn the caretaker PM

Two things are guaranteed to raise a laugh with TV audiences: one is Boris Johnson, the other is Labour’s position on Brexit.

By Peter Wilby

Though I admire Diane Abbott – and put her as my first choice in the 2010 Labour leadership election – I am bound to admit that her constantly wagging forefinger, and habit of speaking slowly and enunciating her words carefully as though talking to inattentive infants, grate with many people. I suspect this explains why she was the target of personal attacks and mockery on BBC One’s Question Time rather than, as Labour alleges in a formal complaint, because of prejudice against a black woman (though one should never entirely discount the latter).

But it’s not just Abbott: the previous week, Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, was also treated harshly. Gallantly trying to explain her party’s Brexit policies, she was interrupted by Fiona Bruce, the programme’s new presenter. “Look,” Bruce said, pointing to the audience, “they’re laughing at you.” And so they were.

Labour should worry about this. Two things are guaranteed to raise a laugh with TV current affairs audiences. One is Boris Johnson, the other is Labour’s position on Brexit. Theresa May, however, is not considered a laughing matter by anybody.

Not laughing now

If you think Abbott deserves mockery, her opposite number, Sajid Javid, deserves more. When the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee (aged 72) observed that since 2016, assuming no change in Brexit support among different age groups, sufficient young Remainers have reached voting age and sufficient old Leavers have died to overturn the referendum result, Javid tweeted: “How utterly disrespectful.” Excuse me, but the dead are, er, passed away. Why do we still have to respect their views? How long must they be dead before we can ignore them? Should we still have, say, slavery because millions of dead people supported it? Was May’s decision to hold a general election in 2017 “disrespectful” to those voters who had died since the previous one in 2015?

Northern Ireland’s Unionists used to maintain their grip on power by registering dead supporters and voting on their behalf. No doubt Javid would have approved.

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I am going away for two weeks. By the time I return, Jeremy Corbyn could be prime minister. Here’s how. He makes a deal with a dozen or so Tory Remainers. They agree to support another motion of no confidence in May’s government. They also agree that, when May is defeated and the Queen asks Corbyn (in accordance with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011) if he can form a government, he should answer in the affirmative. They will then support a motion of confidence in a Corbyn government, tabled within 14 days as required by the 2011 act, on the understanding that it is just a “caretaker” government. They continue to support Corbyn as he and his team, consulting closely with Tory Remainers, Lib Dems and Nationalists, negotiate a soft Brexit and see through legislation to implement it. Corbyn’s temporary Tory allies then withdraw their support and an election takes place.

None of this is at all likely. The risks for all involved would be enormous. But think of the glittering prize if the gamble came off: Corbyn acclaimed as a statesman, acting in the national interest, and Labour on course for victory in the election.

Stranger things have happened, not least Corbyn’s emergence as Labour leader.

Mr Windsor’s car

Perhaps it was our stupidity (or lack of a sat-nav) but when my wife and I visited Sandringham a few years ago, we struggled to find the entrance. Other historic houses have prominent directional signs for miles around, but Sandringham, presumably for security reasons, doesn’t. After wandering the area for a good 30 minutes, we asked a local butcher for directions. He said we weren’t the first to seek his help.

After Prince Philip, pulling out of a Sandringham side road on to the A149, smashed his Land Rover into a car carrying three of his wife’s subjects, Norfolk County Council said that the A149 speed limit would be reduced to 50mph. I always favour cuts in speed limits, but this road should also feature large red notices: “Danger: reckless elderly royals turning out of side roads!” Hang the security. If Mr and Mrs Windsor, hurtling around without seat belts, have no regard for their own safety, why should the rest of us bother?

Modest Little Man

Considering he was deputy PM for most of the Second World War, Labour leader for 20 years (still a record) and head of the government that founded the welfare state, Clement Attlee has relatively few dramatic portrayals, whether in film, TV or theatre. If he appears at all, it is usually as a rather anonymous foil to Churchill or even, in one curious example, to one of his backbenchers, the flamboyantly promiscuous homosexual Tom Driberg. My old friend Francis Beckett has now given Attlee the central role he deserves in a short play, A Modest Little Man, performed above the Bread & Roses pub in Clapham, south London.

Even this funny and sometimes moving homage inevitably (and accurately) shows Attlee as a man of little charisma and few words. Save for one long soliloquy about cricket, he utters little more than grunts of assent or dissent as his ministers squabble and jostle for political advantage. At times, he reminded me of our present prime minister. The difference is that Attlee had a vision and she doesn’t.

Second youth

The play’s programme thanked me (among others) for my contribution. What contribution? Beckett told me I wrote some of the cricket soliloquy. I have no memory of doing so. That is the effect of increasing age. Corbyn, at 69, is only four and a half years younger than I am. With luck, he will soon forget what he thought in the 1970s and develop new ideas.

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This article appears in the 23 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?