So I got an interesting email from the Vice Chancellor of Exeter University the other night at around 10:30pm.
As I'm a graduate business partner at the University, Professor Sir Steve Smith sent me an invite to "a special Q&A session with a senior Cabinet Minister." It was advertised as "an opportunity to ask questions on the important subject of Britain's EU membership and what it means for young people". We needed to RSVP ASAP as places were limited and first come first served. We would be advised of the location by email the following evening. We weren't allowed to forward the email invitation as the invite was personal.
Damn, I'm busy all of Thursday, was my first thought. I'm gutted I can't go, but I'll have to turn it down. However, as the day went on, it remained at the back of my mind. Who was this "senior Cabinet Minister" going to be? Should I clear my schedule for this? When I asked a few friends and one of them said "You're turning down an event that high level? You what?" I realised I was being an idiot and sent an email directly to the Vice Chancellor to confirm my attendance.
I had wondered why a colleague had knocked on her window as I walked past her office earlier that day and scrambled outside to ask me if I was attending, and why another colleague had emailed me to ask if I could make it. I didn't realise how high-security and secret the event was until the night before.
I first realised it would be Cameron speaking when my Facebook newsfeed popped up with an update from student newspaper The Tab. Their latest article was titled "David Cameron is coming to Exeter tomorrow". Well, damn. That's why it's all so last-minute and hush-hush! I immediately browsed events and posts on Facebook and saw that the socialist students were in uproar. They were not happy that Cameron was turning up to give a session aimed at young people at a time when the majority of the student population were not present, as they are currently home for the Easter holidays. I'm friends with a few of the MA students here at the University, and those who were at home were gutted they couldn't show up.
Those who were still in Exeter, however, were more than ready to show up. An event popped up detailing that there were people who wanted to protest Cameron coming to Exeter. Someone was planning on swinging by the hospital in the morning to pick up some of the junior doctors currently engaged in protest. Suddenly, my email pinged. The Vice Chancellor was saying that I had been selected to attend the event, and informing me of the secret location. I checked the events pages on Facebook again, and saw that people were planning to congregate in the morning on the main campus. I realised I had to keep quiet about my involvement as there was no way I could reveal to anyone where the Prime Minister would be turning up the next day and still be allowed into the session - I'd risk potentially inadvertently releasing a horde of protesters.
There were a few questions I wanted to ask David Cameron, to put it lightly.
A couple of friends provided questions, also, and I added them to my list.
In the morning, I booked a taxi up to campus. On the way there, the driver asked what I had going on. "Oh, you know. Just going to a session with the Prime Minister on the EU." "Wait, what?"
He asked me if I was a Politics graduate after I gave my opinion on the situation and event, and I had to tell him no - I read ancient literature for three years, I just have strong opinions about the state of UK politics!
Once I was on campus, I was struck by how quiet it was. There were a few police vans quietly cruising around - just a hint of what was set to be going down later on. I headed up to the campus Costa and wrote up my questions for Cameron.
On my way to the location, I spotted a BBC van. Well, I thought, this is going to be bigger than I imagined.
I turned up half an hour early. On purpose, might I add - I wanted to see what was going on. There was a group of people stood in the room, and I introduced myself. Then I began making enquiries. The conversation then went something like this.
"So who's the minister in attendance today?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that. You can guess, though!"
"Well, I have my theories, especially after a media leak last night."
"You can tell me who you think it isn't, if you want."
"Ok...is it not...everybody but the Prime Minister?"
Cue awkward laughter. I had my answer - I was pretty sure before, but I'd wanted it confirmed. Cameron was in Exeter.
I listened to the organisers talk about how they were going to tackle attendance, security and so on. I asked where the event was going to take place, as I knew the location we were in was just for registration. They told me they couldn't reveal that information.
People began filtering in to register. The organisers began talking about "the list". If you weren't on "the list", you weren't getting in. I made sure I was on "the list". Someone walked in with a printout of the Vice - Chancellor's email and got turned away because they weren't on "the list". Well, damn. This security is high-level.
The University Registrar showed up to give us a briefing. We waited expectantly for him to tell us who the "senior Cabinet Minister" was going to be. "It's the Right Honourable David Cameron."
There was complete silence for a minute.
"Woo!" someone exclaimed briefly. Awkward laughter around the room.
We were ushered over to the event venue. The paparazzi and live stream crew were everywhere. I spotted a few significant people from the BBC chatting in the corner. My colleague and I chatted with a few local MPs.
Then we waited.
About an hour later, Cameron suddenly swept into the room. He was sat just in front of me, a few seats down. An introductory speech was given. "How many of us are able to put on their CVs that they've debated with the Prime Minister?" A round of applause was given, and Cameron took centre stage with his leaflet and notes.
I won't go into detail about what was discussed at the session - it's all in the news. What I will say, though, is that I struggled not to laugh at some of his responses. What I will also say is that whenever I raised my hand to ask a question, Cameron managed to look everywhere but at me. Everywhere, in fact, but at the people armed with notepads and pens. The people who looked like press. He focused on the people who looked like students, who looked like they fitted in the 18-25 age bracket, the ones with questions he could take and easily respond to.
Then suddenly he was closing the session, a round of applause was given and he breezed out of the room.
The press pounced on those who had been selected by the Prime Minister to ask him a question. Video and radio interviews were taking place all over the building and outside the venue. I chatted with some colleagues for a bit, then decided it was time to leave.
On my way down the road, I spotted a local reporter on the phone. "I'm heading up to the Forum to try and get some views from the students - I'm trying to get some positive opinions on the event, all I've had so far is negativity."
I stopped him, and told him I'd been at the event. I gave my opinion on what had just gone down and what I would have liked to ask Cameron. It wasn't the positive review he'd been looking for, so I'm not sure if it'll make the cut.
Five minutes later, I bumped into another colleague further down the street. "Just been in a session with the Prime Minister," I told him.
"Yeah...I've got some thoughts on it," I told him.
Here are my thoughts.
David Cameron, if you are going to take a Q&A session on the EU referendum at a University, aimed at young people, it might have been good if you turned up when the students were actually around. If you're going to answer questions, you might want to acknowledge more people than just a hand-picked few, before breezing out and driving away. If you want to encourage people to vote, please just do that. Don't tell us to vote, then give us pro-EU propaganda. Listen to us, take on board what we have to say and what we want to ask. Because I still have questions for you. Some of them got answered in the session, but not to my satisfaction. In fact, I don't think many people are satisfied with what went down at the University today. The media storm is testament to that.
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