This week’s Question Time came from Northampton, featuring panelists Grant Shapps MP (Conservative), Stella Creasy MP (Labour), Julian Huppert MP (Liberal Democrats), Susie Boniface (columnist, aka Fleet Street Fox) and Charlie Mullins (CEO Pimlico Plumbers).
If you’re in the UK and have access to iPlayer, this one is actually worth watching. There were two dodgy-quality sections that threatened to descend into the usual bickering, one about fifteen minutes in and the other during the last five minutes, but otherwise this was a fairly calm and rational effort from the panel. Questions were answered primarily on-topic and with analysis, and there were even glimpses of concrete policy, facts and figures in places.
Question 1: Will the promise of tax cuts be enough to save the Prime Minister and get a Conservative government elected?
Stella Creasy said that it was worrying not to have the detail of where the funding needed for tax cuts will come from, and thought it unlikely that voters would believe it without proper costing. Grant Shapps said the detail would follow in the Conservative manifesto and that ‘Everyone will have more money in their pocket’ as a result of what Cameron has pledged.
Creasy was on form on this section, and pushed Shapps to concede that the Conservatives have failed to meet their target of wiping out the deficit by 2015. Shapps eventually agreed they had ‘halved it’ rather than removing it, and dodged further questions on where the £7 billion needed for the tax cuts was going to come from.
Susie Boniface gave an initially weak response using a dating analogy, but later pointed out far more strongly that the move is something of an ideological mis-step: tax cuts clash with the idea of continuing to address the deficit through austerity.
Charlie Mullins welcomed the announcement and saw it as part of Cameron’s wider goal to show that going out to work is more beneficial than drawing benefits.
Julian Huppert welcomed the raising of the tax-free threshold to £12,500, and said that he was glad to see that Cameron had changed his mind and embraced what was initially proposed as a Lib Dem policy.
Question 2: Why do Conservative MPs keep defecting to UKIP?
Grant Shapps seemed to have prepared for this one and turned the question slightly, instead answering ‘Why shouldn’t Conservative MPs defect to UKIP?’ He said that UKIP don’t explain to people that the only way to get a referendum on Europe is to vote for it in Parliament, which they are not in a position to do, and they are making promises they can’t deliver.
Julian Huppert provided a much more informed answer. He said the Conservatives have been split on Europe ‘since Maastricht’ (referring to the treaty of 1992, essentially the point at which the EEC became the more politically powerful EU) and that Cameron is struggling to hold the two sides within his party together. He implied that the Eurosceptic side of the party, on this issue at least, see UKIP as their more natural home. In a later interaction with an audience member, Huppert said part of the problem of people feeling that politicians are out of touch is that the majority of MPs represent a different constituency to that they were born or grew up in, and that it would help if this changed.
Susie Boniface had a different interpretation of the reason for the defections. She said the MPs who have defected have strong followings in their constituencies, which are seaside resorts showing a UKIP swing, and their primary aim is to keep their seats in Parliament. She regards this as a miscalculation: they may be caught out by people who voted UKIP in EU elections but will stick to the main parties in a General Election.
Stella Creasy lost her way on this one slightly, continuing to see UKIP as a protest vote rather than a serious voting option, and getting involved in a messy exchange with an audience member.
Charlie Mullins looked a bit out of his depth and (perhaps learning from Shapps earlier) answered a different question, saying that people are going to vote UKIP and end up with Labour.
Question 3: Does panel think that freedom of movement across EU borders should include convicted criminals?
David Dimbleby jumped in at this point to say ‘we have to be careful about this’, as the question refers to the Latvian suspect in the Alice Gross case. Dimbleby stressed that the man is still at this point a suspect and has not been convicted.
(The panelists took time to say that their thoughts are with Alice’s family. I won’t repeat their comments individually, but they were all very respectful.)
Julian Huppert said that it is possible, in legal terms, to distinguish between the severity of the offence, and border controls could be reworked on that basis. It wouldn’t need to be as black-and-white as whether the person had a past criminal record; the severity of the crime and how long ago the sentence was completed could be taken into consideration. He said we should bring back exit checks, because we only know who is still in the UK if we know who has left, and thinks Theresa May should have been pushing planned changes through more quickly.
Grant Shapps agreed that there is a case for looking at new powers, but he didn’t have much to add to what had already been covered by Huppert.
Charlie Mullins said a lot of serious crimes in the UK could have been avoided if people arriving in the country were checked more thoroughly, and there are other issues, e.g. Polish plumbers could put themselves down as skilled workers without having to show any credentials. (This seemed an odd aside until I remembered Mullins runs a plumbing company.)
Stella Creasy said that EU arrest warrants allow quick extradition between the member states, and that we need to be careful not to lose those powers if we change the rules elsewhere.
Susie Boniface dryly pointed out we have a two-way exchange: we also ‘export’ British nationals with criminal records to other countries.
Question 4: Was the Daily Mirror’s ‘entrapment’ of Brooks Newmark in the public interest?
Dimbleby explains the background to this question is that Newmark sent an indecent image of himself to a reporter posing as a young woman online.
Susie Boniface, who often writes for the Mirror, was asked to answer first. She outlined that the definition of entrapment is where you get someone to do something they would not otherwise have done. Newmark was known to have a history of that kind of behaviour and actively sought explicit photos from the reporter, so in her view, it was not entrapment. ‘Public interest’ is more difficult to define, but she feels it is reasonable to say this story shows Newmark’s tendency to abuse power, which is not a good trait for someone who has political power.
Charlie Mullins felt that Newmark had been entrapped – ‘surely he was set up by the journalist’ – and it is now a domestic situation with his wife.
Grant Shapps said Newmark’s actions were clearly wrong, whether or not it was entrapment, and his resignation was the correct course of action.
Stella Creasy said the messages sent by the journalist as part of the sting operation were very ‘surreal’ and we need the regulator to look at whether it was right to target MPs like that.
Julian Huppert pointed out that photos of real women were sent out as part of this, which is worrying, and that the wider ‘revenge porn’ culture needs to be looked at. At the moment, if explicit photos are taken with consent at the time, they can be put online after the relationship has broken up, and as long as they are only issued once instead of several times over it is perfectly legal. Given the severity and negativity of the emotional impact the release of such photos can have, this should be changed.
Question 5: Where does Prime Minister expect to find the estimated 5,000 GPs necessary to staff seven-day access to surgeries?
Grant Shapps said they are currently funding training, and there are enough medical students coming through to fill the positions.
Susie Boniface said if the question is when it will happen, ‘the answer is never’. The reality is the vast majority of GPs are nearing retiring age, and you can’t force medical students to choose to become a General Practitioner.
Julian Huppert, who was a research scientist and has a PhD in biological chemistry, was naturally strong in tackling this question. He led by pointing out the reduced NHS spending that had been predicted as a result of people living longer and more healthily hadn’t come about, causing huge costing issues. Then he raised the point of Private Financial Initiaive contracts, saying that the cost of PFI causes big issues in his constituency.
Stella Creasy completely disintegrated at this point. She didn’t seem to know that PFI contracts were massively expanded under the Labour government and bizarrely told Huppert he had voted for the Health and Social Care Bill (his voting record shows otherwise). It was actually pretty painful to watch.
Charlie Mullins said he believes what Cameron says on the NHS, given the background of his own family situation (Cameron’s son, Ivan, had epilepsy and cerebral palsy, and died aged six).
David Dimbleby apologised at this point for having to end the discussion, as time was up. For once, I could easily have listened to a further few questions. For Stella Creasy, though, the programme would have been much better if it had ended after 55 minutes rather than an hour.
I had never even heard of Julian Huppert before this edition of Question Time, and he made a good first impression, providing clear and rational answers on a range of subjects.
Grant Shapps had a par-for-the-course run: more style than substance, and got through without any major blunders or triumphs.
Stella Creasy was strong against Shapps in the first ten minutes of the programme, but descended into a nightmare performance thereafter.
Charlie Mullins expressed personal opinions when called upon and otherwise wasn’t particularly involved, and I can’t help feeling the fifth spot on the panel could have been put to better use.
Susie Boniface handled questions 2 and 4 particularly well. She made glib remarks in places, but made up for it elsewhere through good depth of content expressed thoughtfully and eloquently.
David Dimbleby looked tired in places and called Susie ‘Rosie’ at one stage, but otherwise chaired magnificently, allowing contributors from both the panel and audience enough time to make a point in full and moving on when they threatened to get repetitive.
In short, more like this one, please!