You’d be forgiven for not giving over a full two hours of your Friday evening to the television non-event of a Question Time special, however, I’m a sad bastard, so I did.
And before I’m accused of even more anti-Tory bias than usual on the basis of the headline picture: I stole it off the Telegraph, so there!
The format was pleasantly simple (if far removed from Question Time): each of the four party leaders faced 30 minutes of questions from the audience, chaired by the eponymous Fiona Bruce. What could go wrong?
Jeremy Corbyn – Labour
Well it seemed for Jeremy… not much. I could hardly be accused of being a hardcore Jezza supporter, but he came across the best I’ve ever seen him. He was quick of the cuff with his answers, and most of them even to the questions being asked. There were some reasonably hostile audience members and he coped with it well.
His primary stumbling blocks, as ever, were Brexit and antisemitism. On the former, he came with the headline announcement that he has finally decided to officially sit on the fence and stay neutral in the event of a (now surely inevitable?) second referendum. On anti-antisemitism, he struggled, choosing poorly to state he was happy that his party is being investigated by the equalities commission. He of course meant that he was happy the party was making itself fully available and transparent, but his wording would be seized upon throughout the evening.
The overall impression? A reasonably good performance, it seems unlikely to have hurt him, but equally unlikely to have won over too many hanging votes.
Nicola Sturgeon – SNP
What exactly is this? A politician who actually seems to believe in what they espouse? Can it be true?
I’ve long held a soft-spot for Nicola; I don’t agree with everything she stands for (I do think Scottish independence would be a tragedy for the UK), but her integrity seems infallible. She delivered a Braveheart-like tour-de-force performance compared to the others and left many English voters wishing they could elect her.
Where she struggled, was unpicking how Scotland would remain in the EU if it were to break away from the UK. The Scottish budget deficit last year ran at 5.7%, well above the limit of 3% for EU member states, and if it’s economy were to divest from the oil-rich North Sea, it is difficult to see how it would support itself. On this Sturgeon had no real answer.
Jo Swinson – Liberal Democrats
Oh poor, poor Jo. The Lib Dem strategists have a lot to answer for when it comes to their ploy of building a cult of personality around somebody with as much personality as a damp towel. And this is coming from an erstwhile Lib Dem supporter.
From the off she faced a pretty frosty reception from the audience, struggling to ever build momentum as time and time again she was haunted by her sketchy voting record and the hangovers of the Lib-Con coalition. Audience members were much more concerned with reminding her of the broken student finance pledge than the manifesto policies, and she remained on the back foot throughout.
All things said though, it wasn’t a dire performance. Swinson cleverly steered the dialogue to what the Lid Dems did achieve whilst in Government, but it wasn’t the headline performance she will have been hoping for.
Boris Johnson – Conservatives
Boris de pfeffeled his way onto the stage with a most ungainly (and un-stately) waddle to a mixture of applause and boos. From the off, this was clear to be a battle. There was a wonderful moment where he went to put his hand straight into his pocket, and you could almost see in his head his PR people slap it away.
He got off to a rip-roaring start by announcing he couldn’t promise to help the WASPIs (women who have been treated utterly unfairly by changes to the state pension), and this was the last time his smirk adorned his face.
The rest of the half hour was a downhill battle against an audience who wanted to hold him to account. He was heckled continuously, particularly on the matter of the Russian Interference report, to the point that Fiona Bruce almost lost control of the audience, having to turn around and yell “I am in charge here!”.
Then there was the issue of racism and homophobia. He squirmed when asked to apologise for his various appalling comments in his Sunday Times column, claiming the defence of free speech. (The agonising defence was continued by Nicky Morgan afterwards in the spin room to the aghast face of Labour MP Laura Pidcock.)
Other than a couple of limited rounds of applause for the oft-repeated “Get Brexit done”, it was a succession of own goals for Boris, as he claimed we couldn’t deal with poverty or the NHS until Brexit had happened. Not his finest hour.
The audience and the format.
The tenacious grilling demonstrated how this direct approach allows politicians to get away with far less than they can in a conventional debate. It pitched Boris into an arena he hates: facing the public. It made Jo Swinson face up to the realities of her past actions.
There were no king-maker performances, but all-in-all not a bad show for anybody except Boris.