What did you make of Chris Huhne’s Question Time performance? #bbcqt

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2009

So that was the Question Time that was. There is copious assessment of Nick Griffin’s performance, linked to here on LDV.

My views are straightforward. First, Nick Griffin came over badly, but that is immaterial: those who are BNP-inclined will likely have seen him as the victim of a liberal, metropolitan, media stitch-up; and those who despise the BNP will have had their view confirmed.

Secondly, my over-riding sense was of relief that the BNP don’t have a more slick, plausible leader. The moment is ripe for a truly charismatic, attractive, anti-politician to play the demagogue: Nick Griffin is decidedly not that person, thankfully.

Such are my thoughts on Mr Griffin – but what about Chris Huhne’s performance? I thought Chris started strongly, and no-one could be in any doubt about the passion of his condemnation of the BNP and what it stands for. However, I was struck by Matthew Parris’s assessment in The Times today:

For the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne was lucid and confident, and spoke cogently, but said little that was distinctive; he didn’t lead; he didn’t take the argument forward.

And I was even more struck by Chris’s answer on the failings of immigration policy being responsible for the rise of the BNP. Here’s an excerpt from Chris’s answer:

There have been undoubted failures of immigration policy, there’s been some really shambolic delivery of immigration policy over the past few years. Our border control is no longer able to count people out … The result is we issue two million visas every year to students and people on short-term visas and we don’t know whether they’ve left, and that is absolutely unbelievable. The first thing we need to do is make sure we get back control over our borders. …

The other thing is the Government made an absolutely unbelievable mistake in its projections of what was going to happen when we – among very few other European countries – decide we were going to allow everyone from the new central and Eastern European member states in. The govt projected it would be 56,000 people who would come here; it ended up being 766,000 I’m a bit of a connoisseur of bad government forecasts but that was probably one of the worst forecasts on record. … It was unbelievably inaccurate.

It’s an answer which prompted Nick Griffin to remark:

It is rather surprising to have a senior Lib Dem masquerading it seems as an anti-immigration party.

Ouch.

It reminded me of the BBC2 Newsnight leadership hustings in November 2007. When Jeremy Paxman asked the blunt question, “Has immigration been too high?” Nick Clegg answered unhesitatingly, “No.” Chris’s approach was much more nuanced: that in certain communities, yes, the impact has been seen to be too high, and has affected the lives of everyday folk – we should recognise this, and face up to it.

It’s not that Chris was wrong then or was wrong last night. But it is a managerialist argument, not a clear expression of liberal philosophy, which starts from the premise of internationalism, open borders and freedom of movement, and restricts it only when absolutely necessary.

It’s a real shame that, on a night when eight million people were watching Question Time, Chris could not give a ringing, liberal welcome to the huge benefits which immigration has brought this country; while, yes, acknowledging there have also been some problems as well and those need to be dealt with.

As I looked at the three politicians on David Dimbleby’s right – Jack Straw, Sayeed Warsi and Chris – it was hard (despite their best efforts) to distinguish their immigration policies from each other. This was a missed opportunity.

However, I should also give Chris his due for highlight the important point that the Lib Dems have been the one mainstream party to prove they can campaign effectively against the BNP, in Burnley. Here’s what he said:

The evidence on the success of the BNP is very simple. It’s not primarily about immigration, it’s about people being disconnected from the political system, and we’re the only party in Burnley that has managed to halve BNP support over the last four years. We are now actually running the council and we’ve done that by actually listening to people. And the problem is frankly there aren’t enough Liberal Democrats out there doing what we’ve done in Burnley to turn back the BNP because we’re the only party that’s actually done it.