Richard North, 23/11/2019  

More dribble from politicians assailed us yesterday, this time courtesy of the BBC's Question Time Leaders special. And there was one question that Johnson should have been asked – as to how he intends to manage the future relationship negotiations – but it never made an appearance.

Whatever else, Johnson is a full-time politician and, when pitted against members of the public, he has the advantage. It really needs a skilled journalist to take him on but, as we saw from one example last Sunday, they're not up to the job either.

The main problem with the Question Time extravaganza, though, was undoubtedly the BBC's selection bias in choosing the questions and the questioners. Before the programme even started, we were doomed to a surfeit of emotive, NHS-orientated questions which, oddly enough, played into Johnson's hands.

For once, I'm not in total disagreement with Tim Stanley of the Telegraph. "The big takeaway from tonight's BBC Question Time debate", he says, "is that Britain needs to stop doing debates with audiences. All it does is poison the well, turning a discussion of the issues into a row about balance".

He concludes his piece saying that another answer to these distorted debates would be to stop debates altogether. "This is not America", he says. "Ours is not a presidential system. We don't need this theatre of personality".

That is a bit rich coming from a newspaper that has gone overboard in pushing the cult of personality, in favour of its favourite son. But the point is nevertheless sound. When core issues are swamped by lip-wobbling emotion, it is time to draw a line.

Late in the programme, for instance, when faced with a succession of questions about hardship and funding shortages in the NHS, Johnson argued that he had "over delivered" on his promises as Mayor of London.

But, he went on to say, we can only meet the demand in the NHS and elsewhere, "if we have a dynamic economy". "And", he added, "I'm afraid we won't get this economy really moving again, we won't get the investment coming in … until we get Brexit done".

But that surely is the point. Brexit is not going to be "done" with the ratification of the withdrawal agreement. The conclusion of a credible trade agreement with the EU is just as vital and it is that, more than anything, on which "a dynamic economy" rests.

If, therefore, we are to deconstruct what Johnson was saying, the question of what he intends to do with the next stage of the discussions was the elephant in the room. And when the question wasn't asked, Johnson walked away yet again without having to set out vital policy details and his plans to keep the Brexit "future relationship" talks on the road.

But this, it seems, is going to be the election characterised by missed opportunities. Earlier in the day, we had to suffer a torrent of media coverage on the Farage party manifesto launch, with The Great Leader addressing a half-empty hall where most of the audience seemed to be either reporters or photographers (pictured).

The absence of real people didn't escape John Crace, who remarked that Farage couldn't even paint on a smile as barely a couple of dozen morose Brexit party supporters sat in the audience. "His eyes were dead, his face and suit a pale grey".

Clearly, the legacy media haven't caught up with recent events, as they were reporting on a dying party which is getting between two and four percent in the polls – only slightly above Ukip before its collapse. However, the Guardian cartoon does make the point. As with Corbyn, therefore, Farage's plans are a matter of supreme indifference.

As did the Mail on Thursday, though, the Telegraph yesterday picked up on a constituency poll covering Grimsby, commissioned by the Economist, using it to argue that Farage's party is "disrupting politics in the Labour heartlands".

This, in fact, is wishful thinking that is not in any way supported by the Economist poll. The magazine itself warns that "local polling is tricky, the sample small and there are three weeks to go", but the actual weighted sample, after removal of the "undecided and refused" is 271.

That in itself makes for a considerable margin of error, and the pollster, Survation, then states that sub-samples "will be subject to higher margin of error" and that conclusions drawn from very small sub-samples "should be treated with caution".

Without repeating any of these caveats, the Telegraph tells us that Grimsby "shows the Tories in the lead because of an 18 percent drop in support for the Labour candidate - and an 17 percent rise in support for the Brexit Party".

This is actually on the basis of a weighted sample of 47 Brexit Party supporters, in a constituency which has in recent years shown considerable volatility in voting patterns.

If you want to play games, the elections of 2015 and 2017 are worth a look. In 2015, Ukip took 8,417 votes (25 percent) but dropped back in 2017 to 1,648 votes (4.6 percent). By contrast, the Labour vote rose from 13,414 (39.8 percent) in 2015 to 17,545 (49.4 percent) in 2017.

But, before drawing conclusions, one also needs to note that the Tory vote also increased from 8,874 votes (26.3 percent) to 14,980 votes (42.2 percent). With the Greens and Lib-Dems losing ground and the turnout increasing by nearly 2K, trying to work out precisely what was going on is not a simple task.

Obviously, on 12/13 December, the Grimsby result is one to watch, but it would be rash to start making predictions about this constituency on the basis of this one poll. Still less can one make any predictions about the effect of Farage's party in the "Labour heartlands".

Yet to come in the annals of distraction, though, is the Tory manifesto – apparently due out Sunday. Already, Tory candidates are being briefed about the lines they must take. The copy of the 68-page briefing document, obtained by The Times, gives a preview of 90 percent or so of the Tory manifesto, but we seem to be none the wiser on Brexit. We'll have to wait until Sunday to see what transpires – if anything.

In the meantime, we have seen precious little traction on the "transition" issue. Katya Adler's tweet has been translated into an article on the BBC website and the Financial Times article to which I referred yesterday, has been republished in the Irish Times where it can be read free of paywall constraints.

The only substantive reference yesterday to the transition period seems to have come from Farage, insisting that it should not be extended – another good reason why the man should be ignored. I suppose we can add a muddled article in the Prospect magazine, but that is it. For the moment, the most important issue of the election has effectively disappeared from sight.

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