David Cooper: An experience of Question Time
Last week I had the good fortune not only to be invited into the live Question Time audience, but also to be able to put a question to the panel about Harriet Harman’s walkabout in a stab proof vest.
Applying to go on the show may have been little more than wishful thinking at the time, after I had found out that there was to be a recording in Birmingham. The online application form simply asked a few fairly obvious questions, including political allegiance and party membership.
Three weeks passed by, then one of the producers rang on the Monday to ask if I was still interested. We went over what was topical – I mentioned Zimbabwe and MPs’ expenses, little knowing of the Labour deputy leader’s impending photo-call – and she confirmed my invitation. I was reminded that they positively encouraged audience participation, and she asked me to put in two questions, one via email by Tuesday afternoon and the other on the night.
My wife had her invitation confirmed separately and she alerted me to the Harman episode at lunchtime on Tuesday. By then there was already speculation about her fielding of this week’s PMQs. I thought about how to tie in a joke with a serious point and emailed the question over, wondering if William Hague might get in first from the very same angle. Of course the actual approach in the Commons was the all humour “clown suit to Cabinet meetings” attack, so I still had some hope of an original contribution.
The day dawned and we found out that Theresa May was going in to bat for our side. The remaining panellists comprised Douglas Alexander, Sarah Teather, Rod Liddle, and – perhaps most notably – Clare Short. Not just local interest, but the thought that if that didn’t put the cat amongst the pigeons, I put in my supplementary question “Have New Labour become the nasty party?” perhaps with more interest in what she might have to say on the point than whether our former chairman might publicly regret ever using the phrase.
David Dimbleby created an immediate good impression by coming out to address the audience in the waiting room. Apart from confirming what was expected of everyone and how it all worked – no need to look for cameras or mikes, just assume everything will be in place and will work (give him a job at Terminal 5, someone) – he made a special point of asking anyone with personal experience of the issues under discussion to chip in. Using a hanging debate anecdote to illustrate the point, he told us of an audience member whose immortal contribution ran: “I should know what I’m talking about – I have actually been murdered!”
The sound and lighting check was assisted with a mock panel from audience volunteers taking the chairs while a debate on education was drummed up. The head of the production crew then came to the front and called out in turn the names of those whose questions had been chosen, so that the cameramen and sound engineers could note where they were sitting. I heard my name called. No turning back now! Having found out in a brief pep talk outside that it was the Harman question, it was back to the hall, and shortly afterwards the panel took up their seats. After a brief dry-run debate on Terminal 5 that was not to be televised, the theme music struck up at around 8.30, and it was straight into the first question on whether the government had lied about the benefits of immigration. Whether Zimbabwe should be the next Iraq, the supposed troop recall from Iraq, and Nick Clegg’s private life all followed.
Without wishing to sound too partisan, it was interesting to see how far the mood in the audience reflected the mood in the country as a whole as shown in recent opinion polls. Applause for Douglas Alexander as he dutifully toed the party line seemed sparse. Rod Liddle showed his politically incorrect credentials with evident approval, and Clare Short’s new found freedom to speak her mind saw her virtually proclaiming that the New Labour king was wearing no clothes. Theresa May hardly needed to raise her voice to make a good impression throughout.
One of those near electric moments came part way through the Zimbabwe debate, when DD took an audience point after consensus on the panel that invasion would have been undesirable. “If there was oil there, do you think the world would be slightly more interested?” No one had an answer and the entire audience seemed to break into applause. The fact that it was my wife who made that point does of course colour my reporting of it, but given that she had spoken earlier of simply wanting to enjoy the show and keep a low profile, it does illustrate partly how a lively debate can inspire even the most hesitant, and partly how politicians can sometimes find themselves powerless to answer a question.
My name was called. “Is Harriet Harman’s choice of walkabout clothing a symbolic admission of the government’s defeat in the war on crime?” Theresa May’s face appeared to light up as she was invited to lead on the responses. Clare Short was again a revelation: “wasn’t it ridiculous – could you imagine me walking the streets of Ladywood dressed like that?” It was left to Douglas Alexander to try to spin his way out with a story of supposedly speaking to Ms Harman on the previous day, and hearing how the police offered her the stab proof vest and how it would have been rude to decline it, but few if any audience members seemed to find any of that credible. With time ticking on, and a side question to Theresa May on why she was not put up for PMQs, my intended follow up – to congratulate HH for reminding us all in one ill judged photo-opportunity how unsafe the streets had become under her government – was lost on the night. However, a lurking reporter from the Birmingham Post captured it for a promised newspaper feature on the show.
The live recording finished just after 9.30 and it was broadcast without editing at 10.35. Top marks to Theresa but a narrow victory for Clare Short.
Overall thoughts? A thoroughly worthwhile experience, especially with the substantial recent shift in the polls. In particular, it’s a golden opportunity to make points on live national TV, which we as a party ought not to ignore. For my own part, being a South Staffordshire executive member and working in Birmingham, I simply took the initiative myself. Perhaps CCHQ did take steps to alert all the branch chairmen in Birmingham to the fact that QT was coming to the city, so that the word could be put around for participants – after all, the show has its own website listing venues and an online application form. If they did not, they really ought to do so in future. It’s too good a chance to miss. In the meantime, ConHome readers could always set an example.