Poor Chloe Smith. First she must endure knowing that many of her colleagues in the Conservative party will have enjoyed seeing her flayed by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel Four News and then, later yesterday evening, by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Smith can’t have enjoyed either interview. Then again, she can’t have enjoyed being sent out to bat without a bat either. Odd, isn’t it, that when the government has something especially incoherent to sell that that senior ministers are unavailable to defend the government line? So Smith was handed the Black Spot and told to do her best.
That best wasn’t very good, of course. The government’s argument for abandoning the planned rise in petrol duty is pretty flimsy in all but one respect: it is probably pretty popular. Smith might have made more of that. She could also have said that, look, £500m sounds like a lot of money but it is roughly 0.07 per cent of the cash the government will raise and spend this year. As ‘unfunded’ tax cuts go that’s pretty small beer in a £700bn budget.
Where will the money come from? Well, she could have said, it’s basically coming from jars of loose change accumulated in various different government departments. If each of the 18 main government departments made an equal contribution to funding this u-turn they’d each be on the hook for £27m. At DWP or Health and elsewhere that’s not even a rounding error.
Had Smith emphasised all this she could have told her persecutors that the government was offering some modest measure of assistance to hard-pressed families and businesses and that it can afford to do so without diverting serious funds from the government’s so-called deficit reduction plan. The Newsnight audience is rumoured to be politically-aware and it might, just might, have been sensible for the government’s representative to have remembered that the viewers might be capable of appreciating all this. A risky business to be sure but no dafter than accepting Jeremy Paxman’s terms of engagement.
Because if Smith performed poorly I’m not convinced Jeremy Paxman did any better. He spent the first two minutes — one quarter of his interview — badgering the Treasury’s most junior minister to reveal when exactly (‘before lunch or after lunch’) she was told that the government intended to change course on fuel duty. It was akin to asking the last man selected in a pick-up football game why they weren’t picked sooner.
If Paxman’s interrogation began poorly it didn’t get very much better. Among his less than useful questions:
‘Is this some kind of joke?’
‘Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, ‘My god, what am I going to be told today’?’
‘You ever think you’re incompetent?’
This isn’t journalism and those aren’t questions designed to elicit useful answers. It’s bullying. It’s not designed to elicit any information, it is simply a means of humiliating whichever poor sap is sent to the BBC studios. There may be occasions when Paxman’s hectoring, sceptical style is a useful antidote to government obfuscation but those moments, I fancy, come along less frequently than they used to.
Moreover, watching Paxman the casual viewer has no means of determining whether the subject being discussed is actually important. The sneering, superior tone remains the same for matters vital and trivial alike. Paxman resembles a bully punching politicians in the face who wishes to be thought big and brave and clever for punching politicians in the face. Increasingly Paxman seems to think his role is to be a Frankie Boyle for the political classes. That may suit the temper of these anti-politician times but it rarely does much to illuminate matters of public policy.
So, sure, Chloe Smith did not fare very well but nor did Jeremy Paxman. Ministers, spinners and television personalities might all do well to recall that The Thick Of It is supposed to be a cautionary tale not a how-to manual. This government isn’t faring well at present but nor, frankly, is Jeremy Paxman.