A good honest debating chamber. That’s how Question Time is billed. In fact it’s an unseemly gold-rush for applause. The panelists are a set of needy egos with semi-fictionalised hairdos. And the audience is composed of wonks and party activists posing as disinterested voters.
Last night’s episode was particularly fractious. The crowd was keen to hear about the Daily Mail’s attack on Ralph Miliband ‘as the man who hated Britain.’ But the first question concerned benefit reductions for the under-25s. Quentin Letts, of the Mail, seemed uncharacteristically nervous. He said his ‘prejudice’ would be to target cuts on the young rather than the elderly. He meant ‘preference’. Rather a shaky start.
Then the ghost of Red Ralph rose from the grave. Letts chose to defend his paper with playful and ironic subtleties. ‘Tabloid headlines,’ he said, ‘are not known for their understatement.’ True enough but the audience was in riot mode. It wanted to hear itself baying for blood. And Letts failed to feed the beast. ‘Ed Miliband’s father was an intellectual philosopher and Marxist,’ he rambled, ‘at a time of the Cold War when Marxism was the code and creed of the Soviet Union, and it’s difficult to analyse someone’s beliefs without coring into their personality.’
He paused. ‘Was it out of order?’ he mused.
‘Yesss!’ yelled the crowd before Letts could supply an answer.
In stepped Mehdi Hasan, a left-wing enthusiast whose contribution to recycling includes a biography of Ed Miliband. Hasan knows how to conduct an angry mob like a maestro. He got their juices flowing with a reminder that the Mail’s owners had ‘sucked up to the Nazis’ during the 1930s. He then reeled off a check-list of prejudices penned by Mail columnists over the years. Finally he let fly with an express train chock-full of adjectives. ‘Who hates Britain more?’ he shouted. ‘It isn’t a dead Jewish refugee from Belgium who served in the Royal Navy. It’s the immigrant-bashing, woman-hating, Muslim-smearing, NHS-undermining, gay-baiting Daily Mail.’
The applause nearly took the roof off.
On press regulation, Letts accused the BBC of campaigning for harsher rules. And he queried the impartiality of Question Time itself.
‘That is a severely loaded question from the chair,’ he said. ‘The BBC has an agenda here.’ The chairman – hereditary TV anchor, David Dimbleby – took umbrage at this. His jowls turned the colour of fresh steak.
‘Don’t accuse me of having an agenda chosen for me by the BBC, thank you very much.’
‘David, you’re part of the establishment,’ Letts said emolliently, ‘and I’m not.’
Letts is more adept at the soft swipe than the hard sell. When the topic moved to economics, he blamed Britain’s debt crisis on Ed Balls and his borrow-and-blow-it policies. ‘But I have to be careful here,’ Letts added mischievously, ‘I’m sitting next to Mr Balls’s beloved.’ He turned to Yvette Cooper like a sympathetic uncle discussing a relative with a gambling problem. ‘Do you trust him with the family finances? Do you sent him out shopping? I dread to think how much money he spends.’
Ms Cooper went on the attack and claimed that One Nation Labour would create full employment by taxing City bonuses. The audience greeted this as if it were a dazzling breakthrough. Jobs for all. Dole queues gone. Idleness and need consigned to history forever. Odd that Labour never tried it while in office.
Dimbleby wanted more detail. He asked if every employer would hire every available candidate, ‘at the government’s behest.’ ‘We’ve done this before,’ said Cooper, ‘with the Future Jobs Fund.’ Crikey. What a claim. Labour, it turns out, terminated unemployment while they were in power. Why did no one spot that at the time?