One of the pleasures of watching Question Time is the consolatory confirmation that anyone who got into Oxford, met all the right people, got on in public life and ended up on the telly was almost certainly an apple-for-teacher creep at school.
You ask how this is confirmed? Simply by observing how mustard keen they are to be picked first for every question. Of course, the statesmanlike veneer reasserts itself pretty quickly, but keep your eyes peeled as Dimbleby barks out the first name. The Hermione Grainger smirk is always there. ‘Expecto Patronum!’, the lucky schoolboy all but ejaculates.
This week, however, wide-eyed panic flashed across the faces of the first-called.
Connoiseurs of the show will recognise this as the once-a-series ‘what if I think the same as Peter Hitchens??’ conundrum. Visibly relieved to be following the Mail columnist’s unremarkable opening salvo on trial by jury, The Reverend Giles Fraser blurted out: ‘I couldn’t disagree with you more Peter! (his zeal was something we have not been accustomed to in the established clergy). A brief silence followed as if anything else was an afterthought.
To be fair to Hitchens, pub bore of the year as he may be, he played a blinder last night and seemed to be toying with the more than usually left-leaning panel (Michael Heseltine was the other purported right winger, joined by Diane Abbot, Vince Cable and the groovy vicar Fraser). With Hitchens at one moment calling for some jurors to be rejected for lack of education, the next denouncing Thatcher’s right to buy and quoting Martin Luther King in support of racial harmony, the rest of the class seemed utterly bewildered by his omnivorous opinions; they resorted to mauling the few little Englanders who emerged from the audience.
A marked tendency amongst audience joiner-inners in recent years became almost a competition in this latest episode, and a highly entertaining one at that. I am speaking of the new fashion by which they announce their link with officialdom before making their contribution. ‘I am a serving police officer’ bellowed one, in a voice that made you sure she was just that; I am a caseworker’ (a what now?) offered another. ‘I was an Olympic Gamesmaker’, said a scout-master type, before commencing an ode to multiculturalism.
Heseltine, a man your correspondent assures you he has great sympathy for, seemed confused, even to the point of directly contradicting himself in one answer. Towards the end when his phone rang, cutting short a slightly rambling speech, it seemed a kindly act of the gods. One wonders – harsh as it may sound – if the Papal way out might not recommend itself to this worthy veteran.
And then the evening gradually wore down to the proforma austerity debate, which does so much to keep us from important topics like horse meat and benefit scroungers nowadays. Injury time was being played out and Hitchens had sight of an improbable victory. Not all were ready to lie down though. When one panelist dutifully – listlessly, even – remarked that the coffers were empty and there would need to be cuts, Abbot roused herself for one last hurrah. “Tell it”, she declaimed, her open hand raised in a Ciceronian attitude, “to the people of Lewisham!” The caseworkers seemed to like it.