Morning Lemmings and a slight caveat before we start: I had to wake up really, horribly, stupidly early on Thursday morning so I was half asleep when I watched the show and can't claim to have entirely taken it all in. Nevertheless here we all are so welcome to what should have been the first 'normal' Question Time in absolutely ages (after all, we've had the mid-summer riot special, followed by the 9-11 anniversary knockabout and then a string of party conference episodes that largely managed to completely overlook anything that transpired in said conferences). However this turned out to be anything but a normal episode and I'm chalking that up to two reasons: A) The composition of the panel was all askew and B) this was less of a straight forward debate and more of a snuff movie based around how comprehensively a group of people could crush one man's soul.
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With regards to the panel it all started mundanely enough with the introduction of the Blue Team's Andrew Lansley but quickly left the blueprint when it turned out that Labour would be represented by Ken Livingston (who, let's face it, is only nominally a Labour politician) and the complete absence of the Lib Dems whatsoever. Actually, the fact that the Yellow Team had somehow managed to skive off this one took a while to dawn on me as I initially concluded that the ginger man with glasses must be the Lib Dem panelist (for they are the most ginger of parties) but it turned out that he wasn't: He was actually Dr. Phil Hammond. So that threw the regular dynamic somewhat off kilter but there was a much more pressing issue to hand and that was 'just what in the hell has happened to Andrew Lansley?'.
Cast your minds back a year or two and try to imagine Lansley as he was then. Now, in my head he's always been the nearest thing the Tory Party has to Swiss Toni (if only he'd grow a moustache) and, appropriately enough, he was charged with the task of flogging to the public a product that they wanted absolutely nothing to do with: The dismantling reform of the NHS. Credit where credit's due though, he did give it his best rendition of 'privatising a cherished national institution is a lot like making love to a beautiful woman' but the task was beyond even his suave charms and the bill swiftly took on all the attributes of political plutonium. Naturally, this hasn't been a 'fun' process for Lansley and it's understandable that one might get a little worn down by a daily routine of relentless hectoring. However, judging by last night's performance it hasn't just worn him down, it's really got to him.
The first clue that all is far from well came the instant he opened his mouth. Usually, the Health Secretary has a pretty reliable 'can do' tone to his delivery and is able to put up a reasonable fight if required, but that was nowhere to be seen last night. Instead, he mumbled his answer in the muted tones of someone who has just seen something horrible and his eyes appeared glazed and fixed on a non-specific point in the middle distance. The first question happened to be about Liam Fox and Lansley did attempt to go through the motions of at least pretending that he cared about it but all the while you could tell he was preoccupied with some rather dark thoughts, almost as if he'd had a premonition of his own political death. As it happens, he wasn't a million miles away from the truth and as soon as the inevitable NHS question dropped you could see what little fortitude he had remaining drain away and a grim acceptance of the fate that was about to engulf him pass across his otherwise ashen face.
That this fate was going to be a nasty one was pretty much a given and neither was there any great mystery as to how that fate was going be delivered given the presence of Dr. Phil. Now, arguing against doctors is a tough gig at the best of times, but arguing against a funny one who happens to write for Private Eye whilst you happen to be in the process of destroying everything he holds dear must be an utterly brutalising experience. Having said that, there was an early glimmer of hope for Lansley when Dr. Phil used his go at the Fox question to shoehorn three gags together in such rapid succession that I thought he might finish his turn by wedgying Dimbleby. That made him look like a clown but whatever meagre solace it might have given Lansley was short-lived and before long Dr Phil was back in serious mode, assailing him from every possible vector and channelling the audience's ire into a torrent of fury. And there Lansley sat, the world crashing down upon his head and tossing his limp body too-and-fro like a rag doll. Sure, Mark Littlewood did his best to provide covering fire but given that a) the audience clearly weren't in the market for counter-arguments and b) no-one had a clue who he was his efforts came to nowt and the beasting continued unabated. Thus it was that I actually began to get a little bit worried about Lansley.
Working in mental health means that I've come across a fair few people who've been through some horrific stuff and have had to adopted some fairly full-on coping strategies, one of which is dissociation. This is where the world gets so crazy and unbearable that in order to survive, the mind simple removes you from the situation and the events that are going on appear to be happening to an empty vessel. Now, I have a feeling that this isn't too far away from what we witnessed with Lansley last night and I must confess that despite having very little love for the man (or his policies) I actually felt sorry for him by the end of the show. It's not to say I don't think he got what he deserved or that anyone was especially nasty to him personally, but I just find it very sad to watch someone who's been so traumatised by events that they appear to have become inured to suffering.
So that was the main event of the show and if the government need any further confirmation that they may be barking up the wrong tree when it comes to health reform, may I suggest they fire up the old iPlayer tout suite. It wouldn't be comfortable viewing but to witness a crowd that made it abundantly clear that any transgressions against the NHS will not go unpunished would certainly be instructive. As for the rest of them, well Dr. Phil gave a very good - if jarring - performance as he veered erratically between Instrument of Ultimate Justice and Office Prankster while at least Littlewood attempted to put up a fight, even if it was a slightly wrongheaded one. As for Ken Livingstone and Sarah Sands, the same cannot be said and they struggled to remain relevant, what with Ken strenuously reminding us that he's his own man (as he has done for the last 30 years) while Sands showed her support for unemployed youths by telling us how some of her mates were doctors overseas and Cisco are going to sort everything out. Que?
The Crowd: Brim(ming over with scorn).
And that's that. Sorry that it's been a rather brief affair, especially as it was a fairly energetic episode but the lack of sleep had me feeling all a bit Lansley last night. On top of that I'm afraid to say that there'll be no Questionable Time next week as I unfortunately have to be elsewhere but fear not, it's a Scottish episode. No offence Scotland, but you might as just well rename the show Alex Salmond Time.
In a fortnight Lemmings, in a fortnight...
For a full version of this article and many others like it, please go to QuestionableTime.com.