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Questionable Time #1

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Good morning Lemmings and welcome back. Welcome back from the non-summer where the world of politics decided to give up any pretence of rationality and instead took it upon itself to run around screaming gibberish with its hair on fire. Obviously, this turn for the surreal bodes well for the new series of Question Time as there's currently an extensive backlog of barely comprehensible events to get our collective heads' around, but before we can get stuck into that business we must first deal with a certain maudlin formality: The 9-11 10th anniversary special. Now, if I'm completely honest, I can't say I'm thrilled with the prospect of writing up last night's show as a) Question Time is at it's best when dealing with fresh issues that could go any number of ways rather than the tragic events of yesteryear, b) this topic has already had the most thorough of QT airings over the last decade (seriously, they could have just put Claire Short on and got her to do a 180 on every single question if they wanted a slightly more succinct summary of events) and c) 9-11 isn't the easiest of subjects to cover on a supposedly 'funny' blog. Trust me, it's not exactly a comedy goldmine and every time you do come up with a good line you have to spend the next half hour going through the endless list of who it may offend. Still, here we are and I don't make the rules. I just work here, ok?

Right, so first up we have Liam Fox, a man who've I've been keeping quite a close eye on of late as he seems to have undergone quite a transformation since become Defence Secretary. For example, back before the election you could always count on Fox to bring a certain grimness to proceedings, what with his moribund pallor, dead eyes and generally depressing take on the world (which can be summed up as "We're all doomed unless we bring back the workhouse, the birch and Teddy Roosevelt"). It wasn't a particular entertaining schtick, but at least it was consistent and I always felt safe in the knowledge that no matter how good the news was, I could always rely on Fox putting a downer on it. These days though, I'm not so sure. Take for example the results offered by a Google Image search in his name. If I'm not mistaken I think I can actually see a genuine smile pass the lips of Dr Death in any photo that involves uniforms, pieces of military hardware or desert landscapes. Scroll down some more and also take note of how the wearing of a flak jacket seems to enhance his mood by several thousand degrees of magnitude to the point where he actually appears to be 'happy'. Now, this in itself is hardly news as politicians generally get weak at the knees when given the opportunity to knock about with squaddies, but given his actions of late I think it may run a little deeper with Fox. First there was all that leaking of letter to Cameron where he refused to back substantial cuts in the military and then there was the subsequent leak where he outlined his disdain for International Development spending, probably on the grounds that it was the preserve of cotton picking hippies. On top of this, he's somehow found the time to describe Afghanistan as a "broken 13th-century country", wind up the top brass by hinting that there may be too many of them and drop a few thousand bombs on Libya.

Now, if I'm not mistaken, this is all starting to paint a picture of a man who's gone completely native and not just in your more traditional "Cher-cher-cher-check out my poppy!" way that most politicians succumb to. No, Fox is going all the way up the river, guzzling industrial quantities of Kool Aid and he fears no man, least of all his own leader (who may pretty soon have to dispatch some Martin Sheen-esque assassin/errand boy in the hope of containing this one man insurrection). So that's where he's at and all of the above pretty much encapsulates his approach to last night's Question Time which largely hinged around his belief that blowing up terrorists is a basically sound idea, Iraq was all a bit 'meh' and that if all else fails, big up the troops and ride the wave of obligatory applause. That's not to say that he's got a completely tin ear to the chatter of reality as there was the odd mention of un-Fox like words such as 'negotiation', but by and large it was fairly straightforward: Terrorists are bad, unless they've been blown up. Then they're not so bad.

So did it work? Well, sort of in that while he may not have had the whole audience behind him, the ones that were were pretty enthusiastic in their approval and that while he clearly has gone a bit loco over the last year and a bit, he did manage to present himself as an actual politician rather than a rogue Special Forces operative who's fallen out of radio contact. Still, I think I prefer the new Liam to the old one as while I admired the morbid certainty that used to enshroud the Fox of Yore, there's nothing like the whiff of Dengue Fever and napalm to spice things up a bit.

Ok, moving on and wait a minute, I think I recognise this bloke. Isn't that the guy who had whole world laid his feet before getting gazumped by his congested sounding brother? That's right, it's David Miliband, former Foreign Secretary and Great White Hope of Old New Labour! So yes, Miliband D has finally emerged from wherever he's spent the last year hiding (and most probably weeping) but to what end we might ask? On the face of it, this appearance could be construed as largely innocuous as he is an entirely appropriate pick for a panel that's going to debate 9-11+10 (=8?) but the cynical side of me (and that's totally the side of me that has the most fun) isn't entirely satisfied with this assessment, particularly given the way he played his hand. Let's have a look at what he said.
  1. We should never have called the post 9-11 response 'The War On Terror'.
  2. Hindsight hindsight hindsight.
  3. Torture is bad.
  4. We haven't exactly played a blinder in Iraq or Afghanistan.
  5. Need to sort the whole Israel/Palestine shebang.
  6. I totally ballsed up when I voted for the Iraq War.
Now most of this is pretty unremarkable, common sense stuff but number 6 stands out as it marks the point where he's finally ripped the thorn of Iraq out of his side. When questioned in the past about why he voted for the war and his views on the conflict, you could tell that Miliband was acutely aware he must at least look like his trying to defend his decision (and his party's... let us not forget the Scolding of the Clapping Harman) but he never looked comfortable in doing so. That stance melted into thin air last night and by the end of the show he was in full mea culpa mode, admitting that it had been a mistake to vote for the war and driving the crowd into a frenzy of applause. This is important as while there are many reason as to why Miliband lost out in the Labour leadership contest, the fact that he was a very visible part of the New Labour foreign policy machine and that this put him off-limits to certain sections of the party was a big one. What he did last night can be construed as a concerted (and effective) attempt to detoxify that part of his legacy.

The other thing that Miliband did last night was to remind us that he's actually quite good at this politics lark and that in terms of delivery, he's a tough act to beat. In some ways this is quite surprising as if you really listen to him, he uses a lot of words to say not a great deal (not usually a good sign) and there is something a bit head boyish about him, but the overall effect is mainly positive and makes him sound grown up without being overly stuffy. All of which is in sharp contrast to his brother who hasn't had the best time of making himself heard and if I was in his shoes right now, I'd be starting to worry. Time's ticking Ed... You've not done a bad job to date but unless those polls start moving upwards soon I wouldn't put too much stock in the virtues of brotherly love.

Right, given the absence of the Yellow Team (which is a shame as they're the only mainstream party who can point to a pretty good record on post-9-11 foreign policy calls), we're going to have to make do with grumpy looking geo-political pundits Richard Perle and Tariq Ali. Now, had this show been filmed five years ago I reckon we could have had a right old to-do on our hands as panelists don't come much more polar opposite than this pair and back then they were both mouth foamingly crazy. However, it seems the passage of time has somewhat soothed their otherwise febrile mental states and what actually took place last night was less bare knuckle brawl and more Queensbury Rules, much to my disappointment.

Now, in case we've forgotten Perle was the ultra-realist neo-con who acted as a cheerleader for the Iraq War and generally took it upon himself to berate the rest of the world for being wusses and not American enough. As expected, he used last night's show as a venue to claim that the world's a much better place when it's being carpeted with US ordinance, but not as emphatically as he would have a few years back. Instead there were hints here and there that he may not have been entirely happy with how Iraq turned out and that some things could have been done better, but generally speaking it was business as usual. In terms of performance, it wasn't brilliant, what with him reminding us that more people died on 9/11 than 7/7 (as if it was a competition) and a couple of jokes fell flat, but yeah, it could have been worse.

In contrast, Ali had a great innings last night and quite probably in spite of himself. I say this because while I generally tend to agree with his point of view, he's had a habit in the past of annoying me by dint of getting overly agitated and jabby-fingered. However, last night was different and while he did manage to build a reasonable head of steam every now and then, you got the impression that he's probably quite tired of going through the same arguments for the ten millionth time when it never seems to change anything. That gave his outing a more leavened quality than it's had in the past and it was all the better for it. Sure, at the start he did get a little hot under the collar with Perle about the WMD issue but it didn't turn into a full-blown rage fest. Instead, he just carried on hammering away with some pretty well-reasoned arguments and a semi-resigned look on his face, all of which garnered a very respectable haul of applause from the audience. So yes, I thought that was a solid effort and worthy of a good few points. Well done to you, Mr Ali.

All of which leaves us with Bonnie Greer, a person who I am still struggling to find the purpose of and have yet to forgive for her bungling of the BNP episode. That sounds harsh but I think it's justified on account of the fact that she has a highly recognisable (and highly annoying) Question Time Tic that I like to call 'Greering for Time'. Allow me to explain: Stage 1 of Greering for Time is that art of covering your lack of a valid answers by embarking on a series of wild goose chases that more than likely contains references to how 'real' your life is in order to cover the fact that you don't know what you're talking about. A good example of this would be all of last night's response that started with lines such as "When I was making a film", "I know people", "I Iived near Ground Zero" and "I'm from a services family". Stage 2 of Greering for Time then involves folding some nebulous and ill-defined concept into the spoils of Stage 1 in the hope that if you repeat that concept enough, it might sound like a valid argument. Examples of this would be when she repeated the word "homicide" about a thousand times or her extended rambling about how "You can't be a muslim". Finally comes Stage 3 and all you have to do here is wrap up the previous stages with something involving 'peace' or 'the people' or even better, a mixture of the two ('peacy people peace' is ideal) to convey just how compassionate you are. If you follow these guidelines it seems that you can totally get away with loads of applause for having said nowt of any import.

Ok, so I'm sounding bitter now but that's because I really don't get it. Everything she said last night was at best tenuous and at worst flat-out bollocks, but everyone still lapped it up and she was rewarded handsomely for her dubious efforts. That's not to say that I think her intentions are bad or that she's up to no good, it's just that she's, well, a bit crap.

Alright, that's the panel done so let's have a quick look at the crowd before I take off. Now, the first thing is that I'm going to have to knock a point off their score on account of their falling for the old Greering for Time trick. Sorry, but that's how it works around here. Other than that they seemed a pretty decent lot who although not electrifying did manage to bring a little oomph to the show and posed some genuinely interesting questions. A special mention goes out to the special lady with special teeth who made the following special statement: "There's a problem of increasing the problems". That there line is very special. Also, a mention is warranted for the gentleman who seemed to be sleep talking when he asked his question and took about an hour to remember that it was Iraq and Afghanistan that we had wars with. Nice work there Sir, feel free to return to your slumber.

Tl;dr

Fox: 5/10

Colonel Kurtz

Miliband: 7/10

Major Revival

Perle: 4/10

Corporal Punishment

Ali: 7/10

General Competence

Greer: 3/10

Private Grief

The Crowd: 6/10

Innocent Civilians

Ok, we're done here. I'd like to say that next week's Question Time will see us on a more familiar footing but I can't as it's taking place in Northern Ireland and I never have the faintest idea of who/why/what is going off on those episodes. Given the above, don't be surprised if I engage in a certain level of Greering for Time in next week's report. You have been warned.

Next week Lemmings, next week...

For a full version of this article and many others like it, please go to QuestionableTime.com.