Like it or not, Question Time is Britain’s most popular forum for political debate. Two million viewers regularly tune in, and Thursday evenings on BBC1 is when and where ordinary people are most likely to encounter a secretary of state or shadow cabinet minister. For politicians, it’s a golden opportunity — a huge audience to which they can sell both themselves and their party’s policies.
The choice of guests usually causes an uproar on Twitter — mostly along the lines of ‘why is X appearing again? ‘ and ‘ I’m sick of seeing Y party getting so much airtime’ — but who actually appears most frequently? Digging into to the IMDB’s comprehensive database of Question Time appearances, this is how many times major Tory and Labour figures have appeared since 2004 (NB: I’ve kept equal the numbers from the Tories and Labour, and roughly equal the politicians’ positions too):
You can see that, contrary to what most people think, Nigel Farage isn’t Question Time’s most frequent guest. That honour goes to Ken Clarke, who has appeared 23 times in the last decade. Unlike many of his government colleagues — Michael Gove and George Osborne for example — Clarke has appeared almost as many times in government as in opposition. It’s easy to see why his party want Clarke on air. As a veteran of the Major and Thatcher governments, he’s easily recognisable. He is affable, friendly and persuasive. And, without a portfolio, he doesn’t have to do detail, which allows him to roam across the political terrain. Arguably, he’s the anti-Farage.
The second notable thing is the lack of appearances by Ed Balls. Out of the major Labour politicians in the chart above, only shadow education minister Tristram Hunt and shadow defence minister Vernon Coaker have appeared fewer times — and they’ve only been shadow ministers for only six months. Even Chuka Umunna, who’s only been an MP since 2010, has had made more appearances than Balls. Here’s the chart again, showing just Labour politicians:
But what it doesn’t show is that Balls has been on Question Time only once since he was appointed Shadow Chancellor? It’s a little odd, considering that George Osborne appeared seven times in his five years holding the shadow brief. When I asked Balls’s office whether this was due to lack of invitations, lack of time or for other reasons, a spokesman said:
‘He’s been on the programme four times in the last four years – I’m sure he’ll be on again in the run up to the election’.
In fairness, Balls hasn’t been completely absent from our TV screens – he appeared on The Andrew Marr Show three times in 2013 alone. But you have to ask: why isn’t Balls in front of a mass audience more often? George Osborne has an five-point lead in being seen as the most credible Chancellor. You’d think Balls would grab every chance he could get.