This week’s episode was in Wolverhampton, with panelists Anna Soubry MP (Conservative), Lord Prescott (Labour), Paul Nuttall MEP (UKIP), Maajid Nawaz (Liberal Democrats) and Neil Wallis (journalist and former deputy editor of the News of the World).
These were the questions and the panelists’ responses:
Question 1: Does hiring Andy Coulson show David Cameron has bad judgement?
Anna Soubry said that the appointment was reasonable given the information available to David Cameron at the time, and that he had thought Coulson deserved a second chance after being forced into resignation from NotW.
John Prescott said it showed terrible judgement on the part of the PM, and that he had warned Cameron against Coulson at the time. In addition, he said he knew his phone was being hacked, but nobody would listen. Prescott then drew upon the wider picture of the incestuous relationship between politicians and the media, adding that he had always refused invitations to Rupert Murdoch’s parties, and that he had disagreed with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in that they were getting too close to the media.
Paul Nuttall also focused on the undesirable relationship between politicians and the media. He had little in the way of factual content to add, but his line “It needs to go away, and go away now” got a lot of applause.
Maajid Nawaz went one further and turned the focus to the “real victims” of the phone hacking scandal, the families of Milly Dowler and Madeline McCann. His was the weakest response of all, designed to tug on heartstrings and not helped by the fact that he mixed up the names of the girls on two separate occasions.
Neil Wallis turned the question around by saying that at the time Andy Coulson was hired, the Conservatives were in opposition, and at that point he had been acquitted of all charges. He and Anna Soubry briefly joined forces to point out to John Prescott that, as deputy PM at the time, he should have done something about it instead of claiming retrospective credit for being right.
Question 2: How fearful should we be of British combatants returning from Syria?
Anna Soubry started off, saying firmly “Well, of course we should be fearful.” She focused on them being primarily young men, fully devoted to a wrong cause and prepared to use any means to further that cause; but also stressed that they are a small minority and do not represent the UK’s Muslim population.
Maajid Nawaz stressed the need not to fear Muslims on sight, but said there is an increase in the hardened minority and that there are more “foreign fighters” going to Syria than went to Afghanistan. He gave a case study of a young Muslim man who used to aspire to being PM who has been “lost” to politics and has joined the fighters instead. He highlighted the danger of radical clerics feeding impressionable teenagers the false narrative of a worldwide war against Islam.
John Prescott says the UK should learn the lesson that they shouldn’t seek to impose regime changes on other countries, and radicalization has in part happened through young men seeing on TV their own people “getting knocked about” as the result of misguided actions by the West.
Paul Nuttall reinforced Soubry’s point that the extremists are a small minority, but said the problem should be tackled seriously through “British values” being taught in schools, the closing down of jihadist meetings, and Britain taking no further part in Middle Eastern wars “that have nothing to do with us”.
Neil Wallis praised Nawaz’s contribution before comparing the situation to his memories of NI during the troubles. He said one of the key things then was to cut off the supply of arms; one of the key things now would be to cut off the supply of extremist preachers. He said the government needs to provide jobs to keep young people focused on their individual futures and the community needs to teach its young that extremism is not acceptable.
Question 3: With Cameron seemingly having lost the battle over the next European Commission president, does this indicate future failure to renegotiate the UK’s relationship within the EU?
Paul Nuttall said Junker’s appointment would demonstrate three things: 1. The EU hasn’t learned anything from the most recent set of elections; 2. Cameron’s promise of renegotiation is “pie in the sky” because Brussels doesn’t want to renegotiate; 3. Britain is more isolated in Europe than ever before.
Anna Soubry said if the Conservatives are elected as a majority government in 2015 they will have two years to work towards renegotiation, and she would personally like to see the UK stay in the EU but with substantial reforms. She went on to attack UKIP as not being able to deliver a referendum and said of their MEPs that “all they do is take the money and not turn up”.
John Prescott said he had hoped to leave the EU as a result of the referendum in 1975, but the UK voted to stay in then and he believes they’d vote to stay in again. He sees Junker as the wrong choice because he’s a federalist and Prescott doesn’t believe in a federalist Europe. He criticized Cameron’s handling of the selection process, saying he has managed to alienate Merkel and other potential allies.
Neil Wallis said “believe it or not, John, I’m with you” in that he dislikes the idea of a federal Europe. He is unhappy about the lack of democracy shown in the way the EU Commission operates.
Maajid Nawaz said that Junker represents “the old way of doing things”, that he would support a referendum on EU membership, and that the EU wastes too much money, not least in the shuttling between Brussels and Strasbourg. He, too, would like to see renegotiation.
Question 4: Does Suarez’s four-month ban suggest football is soft on violent behaviour?
Anna Soubry declared Suarez’s actions (biting another player on the shoulder) as “shocking”, saying he should be banned for longer and possibly also criminally prosecuted.
Paul Nuttall said Suarez has damaged his career prospects, as he was tipped to move clubs but now Liverpool will probably be stuck with him.
John Prescott got the warmest audience response of the night by saying “I’d just take his teeth out!”
Maajid Nawaz said footballers should be setting a better example and it’s right to discipline Suarez.
Neil Wallis got two groans in succession by saying this was a topic they could get their teeth into, and that if Liverpool receive an offer from a club they should bite their hand off.
There were no major surprises, with the politicians sticking to their party lines. Wallis engaged more thoughtfully than I was expecting (aside from Q4; with puns like that you can tell he spent years working for tabloids). Nuttall played to populist opinion and generally got away with it. Prescott put in a strong showing, Soubry was strong on the EU question but looked slightly cross throughout, and Nawaz started terribly but slightly improved with each question.
I would like to have seen one of the side-issues arising from Q1 more fully addressed; namely, how much power does the Deputy Prime Minister have? If Prescott had wanted further investigation of Coulson over phone hacking at the time, and was unable to get it, that speaks volumes.
On the whole there was a good proportion of content within the panelists’ answers, and Dimbleby chaired well, ensuring digressions were cut off and that each panelist got to directly answer the initial question asked.