Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Are politicians even capable of answering "yes" or "no"?

You see, this, THIS is why I despair of politics and politicians. I’ve already made my opinions clear about the current state of politics in a previous post, but this is really the nub of the problem.

Today (Wednesday 20 July), our Prime Minister was asked two very basic questions during a lengthy session in Parliament.

Below is the sorry saga of the pathetic… hmmm, I would call it cut and thrust, but that makes it sound clever and entertaining… how about, pathetic politic speak that ensued.

Ding ding, round one. In the red corner, CUBE DX-9. Initiate question…

Edward Miliband: Let me start with BSkyB. The Prime Minister said in his statement something that he has said on a number of occasions, which is that he was excluded from the “formal” decision-making process. With respect, that does not quite answer the questions that he has been asked. Last Friday, he revealed that since taking office he had met representatives of News International or News Corp, including Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch, on 26 separate occasions, so the first question that I have for him is whether he can assure the House that the BSkyB bid was not raised in any of those meetings or in phone calls with those organisations, and whether he can also say whether at any time he discussed the bid with the Culture Secretary or, indeed, with any of the Culture Secretary’s officials.

Got that, Dave? Red Ed is asking whether the BSkyB bid was raised in any of your interactions with News International or News Corp. It’s more or less a yes-no type question.

Cue, Dave

The Prime Minister: I say to the right hon. Gentleman: stop hunting for feeble conspiracy theories and start rising to events… He asked about BSkyB. The Cabinet Secretary has said that there was no breach of the ministerial code. We heard the evidence of Rebekah Wade yesterday, saying that there was not one single inappropriate conversation.

Ok, ok, bit of a mis-fire there. But fear not, plenty of time to get it right. Here comes Ben Bradshaw, and he’s simplified the question, and made it very much a yes-no affair…

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): In the Prime Minister’s conversations with the Murdochs, with Mrs Brooks and other News Corp people, was there ever any mention of the BSkyB bid?

Go, Dave

The Prime Minister: As Rebekah Brooks said yesterday in Parliament, there was never a conversation that could not have been held, in front of the Select Committee

Errrr, right… ok.

Undeterred, let's plough on. Ding, ding - round three… here comes straight talking Den, the beast of Bolsover…

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): In the course of the past few minutes the Prime Minister has been asked a simple question twice and refused to answer it: as Prime Minister, did he ever discuss the question of the BSkyB bid with News International at all the meetings they attended?

Right on. It’s all true. The question is simple. It has been asked twice in the past few minutes. And it hasn’t been answered.

Come on, Dave. You can do it…

The Prime Minister: I never had one inappropriate conversation, and let me be clear: I completely took myself out of any decision making about this bid. I had no role in it and I had no role in when the announcements were going to be made. That is the point.

Mr Speaker: Order. The House again needs to calm down. The question was properly heard and the Prime Minister’s answer must be properly heard.

The Prime Minister: I have answered the question and the point I would make is that unlike the party that the hon. Gentleman has been supporting for the last God knows how many years, this party has set out all its contacts, all its meetings and everything it did—in stark contrast to the Labour party.

What? Seriously, W H A T ? ! ? No, that is not the point. And no, you haven’t answered the question, and you’ve been asked it three times now. And each time, the question has been made more and more basic, and more or more obvious that it expects, nay deserves, a yes or no answer. Instead, it gets swerved again, followed by an irrelevant dig.

Ooooh, hang on, this could be promising. Maybe it’s an accepted way of dealing with pesky Labour questions. Here comes a coalition partner! And he’s interested in the same question… (this will be the fourth time it has been asked, lest we forget)

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): Putting aside what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, will the Prime Minister just say whether or not, in the conversations that he had, the question of the BSkyB takeover was mentioned?

Excellent. We've entered the great plains of nose and face on a clear day, people. Mike correctly recognises the appropriate-inappropriate distinction as immaterial, and eloquently requests a yes-no answer.

Come on, Dave. For the love of democracy, let’s have an answer…

The Prime Minister: The point I am trying to make is this. I had no responsibility for the BSkyB takeover. I specifically asked to be taken out of any of the decision making and any of the information because I did not want to put myself in any sort of compromising position. I was very clear about that. So much so that I did not even know when many of the key announcements were being made. That is why Rebekah Brooks was quite able to say, at the House of Commons yesterday, that there was not a single conversation that could not have taken place in front of the Select Committee. I know that many people were hoping for some great allegation yesterday that could add to their fevered conspiracy theories. I am just disappointed for them that they did not get one.

I couldn’t care less what point you’re trying to make. You can make that point whenever you like. What I want right now is for you to answer a really simple question, as this is getting very tedious and starting to make a mockery of politicians and politics in general. Why oh why can’t you provide an answer? And what fevered conspiracy theories? Do you mean the great conspiracy theorists Nike Davies and Tom Watson, who have done so much to get to the bottom of the whole stinking cesspit that is the hacking scandal? Actually, I don’t care what you mean. Just answer the freaking question.

Where four different MPs have failed, can Chuka succeed…? (sadly, this is most likely a futile attempt on my part to build tension – you already know what’s going to happen)

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): May I return to the responses the Prime Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock)? He said that he had had no inappropriate discussions with News International executives regarding the BSkyB bid. Which discussions did he have with the said executives that he deemed were appropriate, who were the executives and what were the contents of the discussions?

Hmmm, ok, we’re probably going backwards in terms of it being a really straightforward yes-no question, but I can still dig it.

Dave, over to you…

The Prime Minister: All those meetings are now published. The hon. Gentleman can look on the internet and see every single meeting that I had.

Are you sure your real name isn’t Bob (and weave) Cameron?

Jeremy  – I admire your pluck, but even I don’t think you’ve got much chance with the below…

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): May I give the Prime Minister another opportunity to say on what occasions, with whom and where, in the time since he became Prime Minister, he has ever discussed the Murdoch bid to take over BSkyB completely?


The Prime Minister: The discussion I had was to ensure that I was not involved in that decision, so I did not discuss it with the Culture Secretary, I did not know about the timing of many of the key announcements—I was not involved. That was the sensible thing to do—conduct in which my predecessors did not necessarily engage.

Barry, do you really want to go there? Oh, what the hell… what harm can it do at this stage?

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): I welcome the Prime Minister’s transparency in making available the 26 meetings with News Corps and News International. I welcome the fact that he was able to say that no inappropriate conversations took place between him and BSkyB. Can he tell us that no appropriate conversations about the bid took place at those meetings also?

Dave… (bit of an open goal for you, courtesy of Barry)

The Prime Minister: All my conversations are appropriate.

He shoots, he scores... a puerile political point. Woo hoo. Back of the net. I'll save my little victory dance for when I get home.

Right, I've kinda run out of Steve Bell cartoons, and I'm sure you're bored of my commentary by now, so here's the rest of the attempts to get an answer in quick-fire style...

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister define for us what he regards as an appropriate conversation between him and News International about BSkyB?

The Prime Minister: I thought Rebekah Brooks defined it excellently—one that you could also repeat in front of a Select Committee.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister tell the House the details of any appropriate conversations he had about the BSkyB bid, specifically with Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch on 23 December and with Rebekah Brooks on Boxing day 2010?

The Prime Minister: What I have done that no Prime Minister has done before is set out all the details of the meetings and explained that all the conversations were appropriate. That was backed up by Rebekah Brooks yesterday. If the hon. Lady wants to help, she could ask the leader of her party to be equally transparent, which he is not being at the moment.

Sorry, broken promise alert (maybe I could be a politician...). I can't help but comment at this point. Get ready for a slightly infantile question, and a really, really infantile answer...

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): Has the Prime Minister ever uttered the word “BSkyB” in the presence of Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch or James Murdoch?

The Prime Minister: You know—urgh!

I have sympathy for Graham - he's most likely frustrated by the question not being answered over and over again. Put it this way, if he'd been first up, there is no way that he would have asked the question in that way. But as for Dave... that is the Prime Minister of our country standing up in Parliament, and saying "urgh". It's not a typo - it's exactly what he did and said.

Stand. Pause. Say two words. Pause. Make noise. Sit.

And as you'd expect, such a high brow intervention was warmly greeted by backbenchers (I kid you not).

We're the ones that should be saying "urgh" at his behaviour! It's a frackin' liberty that he feels that he can say "urgh" when he's the source of the urgh-making.


Anyway, where were we...

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Since being elected, constituents have contacted me regularly about the BSkyB takeover and their concerns about it, particularly about undertakings being given or offered by an organisation that has been proven to break its undertakings. At any point, did the Prime Minister discuss with anyone from News International the possibility of undertakings being given?

The Prime Minister: I have answered this question. I took myself out of the whole decision-making process on BSkyB. Having looked at what has happened, I would argue that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has taken a series of absolutely correct decisions on the basis of the legal information that he received.

Soooo, by my reckoning, that's 11 attempts by 11 different MPs from two different political parties to get our Prime Minister to answer what is a very easy question. And all 11 attempts failed.

The crucial point is that if he'd just said "yes" or "no", or even "I need to double check some things and I'll come back with a definitive yes or no" after the initial question, it would have prevented the need for 10 follow up questions, and would have satisfied me that he's being open, honest and transparent.

At the risk of making this blog post far too long, I do just want to detail the other question that was repeatedly asked and repeatedly dodged. This one is even easier if you ask me... 

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Last week, I asked the Prime Minister whether Andy Coulson had been through the official positive vetting procedure. Instead of answering, he referred me to the rules of conduct for special advisers and the standard contract. Will he now answer the question?

The Prime Minister: He was vetted. He had a basic level of vetting. He was not able to see the most secret documents in the Government. I can write to the hon. Lady if she wants the full details of that vetting. It was all done in the proper way. He was subject to the special advisers’ code of conduct. As someone shouted from behind me, he obeyed that code, unlike Damian McBride.

Hang on a sec, that's actually a proper answer(ish). Ah, ok, here we go...

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): On 8 July the Prime Minister said that he had commissioned a company to do a basic background check on Coulson. For the fourth time, I am asking for the name of the company. It is a pretty simple question; just come to the Dispatch Box and name the company.

The Prime Minister: We did hire a company to do a basic background check, and that is an entirely appropriate thing to do, and it was an entirely appropriate report. But I have to say, the reason I hired him was above all the assurances that he gave me. That is the key part of the decision and that is what I am prepared to say.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is highly unusual for such a senior adviser to the Prime Minister not to be properly vetted? Will he confirm that it was his decision not to vet Mr Coulson fully, including by asking family and friends about his past life and activities?

The Prime Minister: No, it was not unusual at all. Andy Coulson was cleared in the normal way for special advisers. He was cleared to secret, and he was not sent papers above that level. Like former Administrations, we set out all the names of the staff we employ as special advisers. Once again, I feel that a number of hon. Members are looking for some sort of secret behind a curtain that simply is not there.

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): May I ask the Prime Minister a question that will both help him to be transparent and quash a conspiracy theory? What was the name of the company that vetted Andy Coulson?

The Prime Minister: The point is that we employed a company to do this work. It was not something that we were planning to publish. It is something that companies and businesses do all the time, but in the end the responsibility is mine for employing him on the basis of the assurances that he gave.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): If the Prime Minister refuses point blank to tell the House the name of the company that vetted Andy Coulson, will he place the documents with regard to that vetting in the Library of the House?

The Prime Minister: Let us be clear. The responsibility for hiring him is mine and mine alone. That is the responsibility I take. The hon. Gentleman might not like the answer, but that is it.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): If the Prime Minister cannot name the company that did the vetting of Andy Coulson, can he confirm that the company or any of its directors did not make any donations to the Conservative party?

The Prime Minister: I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to give an answer that is not accurate.

So much wasted time, so many petty exchanges. Again, when first asked the name of the company that vetted Andy Coulson, answers that would have been just fine with me include "It's called X", "I don't know, but I'll find out and tell the House", or even "I am not at liberty to say". All meaningful, direct answers. But instead, we get the run around AGAIN. This time it's four questions from four different MPs (with two other related questions), and absolutely no progress made.

Apologies if this is an over-reaction, but I honestly despair. This is obviously not a one-off. It's routine, week in, week out, accepted behaviour in Parliament. And we wonder why the general public aren't interested, and are often actively turned off, by politics and politicians.

While you're cleaning up News International and the Met, how about cleaning up your own acts as well?

If you're asked a direct question, provide a direct answer. If you fail to do so, then the Speaker should instruct you to provide an answer. And if he fails to step in, then every subsequent question should be a repeat of the unanswered question (perhaps simplifying it each time - using fewer and shorter words, working towards a Jack and Jill standard yes-no question) until an answer is forthcoming.

It could be a bit a dull and a bit weird for a while, but we'd surely make progress pretty quickly, no? In a way, it would be the exact reverse of what Ed Miliband and George Osbourne have been guilty of.

Goodnight grown up, meaningful political debate, wherever you are


Wordle: Are politicians even capable of answering "yes" or "no"?
P.S. Final word? It has to go our Prime Minister, and his own assessment of his performance today...

The Prime Minister: As for answering questions, I do not think that I could have given clearer answers to all the questions that Members have asked in the House. I know that a lot of hon. Members came here this afternoon trying to find some conspiracy theory—but they have looked and they have not found one.

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