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Questionable Time #4

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Good morning Lemmings and welcome to another instalment of Questionable Time, this week brought to us by the seemingly sunstroked denizens of Liverpool. Now, I realise that our national character leads us to become a little giddy when faced with the prospect of unseasonably clement weather but I wasn't quite prepared for just how unhinged we can be in the face of elevated temperatures until I watched last night's show, seething pit of madness that it was. I also can't help but feel a little sorry for the Labour party who (much like the Lib Dems last week) found their conference thunder stolen by a villain no less mundane than the possibility of driving 10mph faster on the motorway. Seriously Britain, have we not bigger fish to fry? Anyway, I'm sure we'll come to that a little later on so in the meantime, let's get this show on the road (at the current speed limit of 70mph).

Right, first victim tonight is Grant Shapps, Housing Secretary and a man whose constant, low-key gesticulation makes him look like he's forever playing with an invisible Rubik's Cube. Although relatively new to Question Time, Shapps seems to be getting the hang of it rather quickly and actually looks quite comfortable nestled between his mortal enemies/esteemed coalition partners on the panel and this, it would be logical to conclude, can only be a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. On the one hand it means that he doesn't feel the need like some of the newer intake to stick his oar in to absolutely any two-bit point going (as is the case for many a Question Time rooky) but there's something else I noticed about him this week that takes the sheen off this otherwise virtuous trait: He's already getting a taste for applause.

Now, the very fact that a fresh-faced Tory minister can garner a few claps in Liverpool is an achievement in itself and one that was usually the result of skirmishing with Caroline Flint (who is quite a tough cooky when it comes to Question Timing), but it's what he does with those claps that bothers me as his primary response to applause seems to be to look a little, well, pleased with himself in a 'Look Mum, didn't I do well' sort of way. I realise that sounds churlish as after all, he earned those claps but he is sailing very close to the Line of Smugness right now and unless he starts to crowbar some humility in there (however faux it may be), he will run the risk of becoming annoying. So how should he respond? Well, there's a few schools of thought here, ranging from the Warsi-esque Continue To Shout Relentlessly Over The Applause approach to the Look Wild Eyed And Visibly Pissed Off manouevre favoured by the likes of Mehdi Hassan. Personally speaking though, I'm a fan of the Shirley Williams technique: Look Unmoved Yet Regal and Imposing. Granted, this is a tricky one when you look so young that you'd get asked for ID when buying paracetamol but the blueprint is fundamentally sound. It's worth a punt Grant as while you may well have the right to look tickled pink, too much self-satisfaction can only lead to people wanting you to look punched black and blue. Not a bad performance though.

Right, Red Team next and here comes Caroline Flint, Shadow Communities Minister and someone I feel slightly sorry for on account of the number of search queries I get for the term 'Caroline Flint naked'. Let me assure you, she's pretty unique in this respect and I'm not exactly drowning in a sea of 'Ken Clarke naked' searches. Ickiness aside, Flint was quite interesting last night as for the first half of the show she looked genuinely at ease and I'm chalking this up to the fact that following Miliband's conference speech she no longer feels the need to unconditionally defend every aspect of New Labour's time in office. For example, had this been a year ago she would have been all a-bristle and jumping down the throats of anyone who dared question the merit of the Blair/Brown government's yet last night she seemed much more mellow and even hinted at that New Labour might have got some stuff wrong (shock horror). This isn't to say that she wasn't without edge and she did use pretty much every opportunity to have a go at the Tories, but it wasn't quite as visceral as it has been in the past.

So, it was all well and good, right? Flint no longer feels haunted by the ghosts of Labour's past and can stride confidently into the sunlit uplands of Militopia without even breaking a sweat? Erh, no. Going on last night's performance she's having real trouble getting her head around exactly what New Old Purple Blue Labour is and it was actually left to Peter Oborne of all people to do the heavy lifting on Miliband's behalf. And that's the problem with Flint: She's very good tactically, tough as nails and capable of sustaining damage that would destroy other panelists. However, when it comes to the strategic picture she's all at sea and often seems incapable of fully articulating what it actually is that she stands for. Still, she could always go on naked. From what I hear, there's a market out there for that sort of thing.

Moving on to the Yellow Team we have Tim Farron, President of the Liberal Democrats and a man who last night popped his QT cherry. Now there's something I instinctively like about Farron in that he's clearly a born trouble maker who's making absolutely no effort to disguise the fact he really can't abide being in coalition. That makes a nice change from the usual earnest hand wringing we've seen of late and the fact that he has no problem in nailing some fairly crimson colours to the mast is also refreshing. However, like Shapps, he also suffers from an undercurrent of latent smugness and despite the fact that it should be fairly easy for someone bigging up the virtues of social housing to turn a quick applause buck in Liverpool, the going for him was tougher than it should have been last night. Most of this was down to his unrepentantly pro-European stance but he also threatened to drag the show into the realm of farce at one point when he tried to make a convoluted and not entirely brilliant point about "sheep tagging". I'll leave it to your imaginations to figure out how that was interpreted by the audience but needless to say, it didn't go quite the way he intended. So bad luck there Tim. Next time try bringing up a reference to 'snow jobs' or the importance of 'rowlock safety'. That's bound to work.

Ok, that's the politicos done but it is with heavy heart that I introduce the first of tonight's civilians: Janet Street-Porter, a woman whose sole aim in life is to scream the reason out of any debate. Last night we had the dubious pleasure of her railing variously against Europe, Labour and (of course) men, but it was the crowd's reaction that vexed me as they heaped applause on her despite the fact that nothing she said made a lick of sense. You see, I've been exposed to such repeated and heavy doses of JSP in the past that I can deal with the fact that her vocal chords are only capable of making white noise and that her proposed solution to most problems is to line the male population against a wall and shoot them but what I can't get my head round is why anyone else would go along with it. It just puts me into a flat spin of anguish and shakes my faith in humanity to its very core. I really hope I'm not alone in thinking this because if I am, then the game is truly up and the end is nigh. Surely I am not the only one who looks upon her works and despairs?

Ughh... Enough on JSP as I can take no more. Happily though, our final panelist is a doozy and one that I was secretly hoping would be on the roster after his wanton display of unreasonableness on Wednesday's Newsnight. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you Peter Oborne, columnist-of-note and all round mentalist. Never one to shy away from controversy, Oborne lost no time in taking the seemingly innocuous speed limit question and turning it into a call to arms for the repeal of pretty much every law and the dissolution of Europe. But he wasn't done with Europe yet, not by a long shot and he was soon able to piggyback on the anti-EU comments of an audience member, denouncing the project as "brutal". The crowd went totally bananas with that comment, applauding him to the rafters and showering him with praise. However, none of them were prepared for what happened next and I'm pretty sure that it was the most comprehensive reversal of fortunes I've witnessed in nearly two years of covering Question Time. The first indication that his star was on the wane came when he effortlessly segued from damning Europe to calling Thatcher "a great woman". As he happened to utter these fateful words in Liverpool it came as no surprise that the mood turned from one of jubilation to that of lynch mob but what was surprising was how little he cared about this turn of events. No, instead of backing off he then went on to describe Thatcher as "compassion itself", a phrase that can get you sectioned if you're north of the Severn-Wash line. Predictably, this lead to a torrent of heckles and the most comprehensive booing I've seen for some years but did he care? Did he cobblers.

So that was pretty exciting, but it was also very much in character as we all know that Oborne is a man who goes in for Euro Damning/Thatcher Venerating. What I wasn't expecting however was his answer to the Miliband speech question. So far as I was concerned, this was going to be a pretty standard exercise in scorn pouring but in actual fact it turned out to be quite the opposite: He loved Miliband's speech! Well, that pretty much finished me off and by the time the credits were rolling my whole world had been turned upside down. So well done Peter Oborne, you may be pathologically contrary old hack who couldn't give two hoots about who you offend but by golly are you entertaining. Big marks for you and your complete disregard for social approval.

Alright, so that was the panel and all that's left is the audience, odd bunch that they were. My first reaction to this lot was one of unmitigated gloom when it turned out that the first question was neither the existential financial crisis nor the seismic shifts currently taking place in the Labour party and was in fact all about the speed limit. Unsurprisingly, that made for the most tepid of debates and I was on verge of writing them off on the basis of that folly. However, they did pull things around and when it came to the meatier issues they did prove to be a vocal - if mercurial - lot. Like Birmingham's audience last week, they went in for an awful lot of random clapping (so much so that I couldn't really figure out which of the politicians actually won the day) but at least they had the saving grace of seeming to actually believe in something, even if that something was that they still very much hated Thatcher. They were also rowdy enough to provide the ideal foil for Oborne's panto villain and to that end, I'm grateful. However, I would like to address the question raised by one lady as to whether you "can be a Eurosceptic and Pro-European?". The answer to that is 'no'. Because it would be stupid.

Schapps: 6/10

Good enough

Flint: 6/10

Tough

Farron: 6/10

Up to snuff

JSP: 3/10

Duff

Oborne: 7/10

Gruff

The Crowd: 6/10

Acceptable stuff

And that's you're lot. I'm off to continue torturing myself with the Battlefield 3 Beta: There's a great game in there somewhere but I just wish the damn thing would stop lagging so I could at least have a chance of finding it. Ah, the joys of beta rage...

Next Week Lemmings, next week...

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