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

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.


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.

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  • I agree i think Chris missed a trick last night to put forward a clear liberal democrat position – no doubt he was worried about seeming too pro-immigration when he is defending such a narrow majority.

    Overall i think he came across well – and people in the office, although a few are disappointed about the lack of policies in the debate, most agree him came across well.

  • Tom Papworth 23rd Oct '09 - 11:12am

    “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. ”


    “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….”

    It was hard to distinguish their policies at all! Actually, Baroness Warsi did argue convincingingly with Jack Straw about immigration, but basically it came across as the “Three establishment parties” (and Bonnie Greer) ganging up on Nick Griffin.

    I will stress this point because it is very important: We will not defeat the BNP if all the mainstream parties agree with one another. We will defeat the BNP by having a real, serious and public debate among the mainstream parties about the issues that affect real people.

    What disappointed me about last night was the lack of debate between the other panalists, the failure to discuss any issues of real concern outside the White City village, and the concentration by everybody concerned on one small, insignificant party. The first time UKIP appeared on QT the panel and audiance did not spend 60 minutes talking about UKIP!

  • Tom Papworth 23rd Oct '09 - 11:24am


    “Nobody seems to be prepared to make a positive case for the contribution that immigrants and their subsequent generations make to the nation, nobody.”

    As long as that sentence is limited to mainstream parliamentarians then I understand your frustration, but there are plenty of us who have never sat in the green benches and who make that point all the time. Frankly, my dictum is very simple: ‘If you want to come here to work, pay your taxes and obey the law you are welcome.’

    On the issue of taking jobs, the point to make is that there is not a fixed amount of work. There are as many jobs as there are people who want to work (which I think is one form of Parkinson’s Law, but in a good way!). The present problems are short-term unemployment caused by the recession, but these people should find work as the economy picks up. The longer-term protectionist argument doesn’t wash: unemployment fell as immigration rose. The reason why people remained unemployed even in the “good times” is that the benefits-trap and the minimum-wage made it cost effective not to work. Immigrants, by comparrison, did not get benefits and so they had to work (which was their plan anyway when they immigrated).

    This is the point I wish Chris had made: Immigration creates jobs and keeps down costs for UK consumers.

  • I agree with John – go door knocking in Eastleigh and you will begin to understand why Chris presents a more nuanced approach to immigration. I have no doubt that Chris is a true liberal, but we can’t ignore the fact many people – especially on the south coast – do have concerns (unfounded maybe) around EU immigration which we need to recognise.

  • Herbert Brown 23rd Oct '09 - 12:36pm

    Yes indeed. And quite possibly it would be electorally beneficial to the party not to be quite so simplistic about racism, anti-semitism and homophobia, but to recognise people’s “concerns” by presenting a more “nuanced” approach.

  • Agree with Stephen Tall. Nick Clegg = right choice for leader.

    If Chris Huhne has to compromise on Liberal Democrat principles because he’s worried about his majority, then he shouldn’t be presented to expound on Liberal Democrat principles on one of the most significant nights in the recent history of the far-right in Britain.

  • Tom Papworth 23rd Oct '09 - 1:16pm

    There was always something of the Catholic priest about you, Stephen!

  • Tom Papworth 23rd Oct '09 - 1:17pm

    Whoops! That didn’t quite work!

  • Martin Kinsella 23rd Oct '09 - 2:30pm

    I thought Chris was fine last night. He did a good job. I was slightly concerned that he tried to get onto the immigration territory in a bad sense. I believe the success of the BNP is solely down to the lack of ability to promote the benefits of the current immigration policy which is fine AFAIC.

    Huhne made a great point about the Lib Dems in Burnley taking on the BNP. Labour has a troughing MP in Burnley and we have people taking on the BNP.

    When you have people in the BNP lying and the government doing nothing to counter their lies then it is no surprise they win (in some quarters) the argument on immigration. For instance the lie peddled that social housing goes to immigrants over the locals. Totally wrong but why is it not being nailed down.

  • Thank all that is holy that Huhne didn’t become leader.

    Griffin was there for the taking. No one took the opportunity.

  • Andrew Suffield 23rd Oct '09 - 2:47pm

    Huhne has always been a moderate, and not a very punchy speaker – nothing really new here. He’s more suited to writing than interviews. Pity it wasn’t Clegg on this one, he’s much better at working off-the-cuff like this.

  • Just came across this site after looking for some LibDem reactions to last night’s QT (which I’ve just caught up with via iPlayer this afternoon). Here’s what I wrote on another site which asked for people’s reactions to the programme:

    I thought it was all pretty predictable. The only surprise for me was the distinct illiberalness of Chris Huhne’s views on the free movement of labour within the EU: enough to make me think twice about ever voting LibDem again!

    Nick Griffin should have been given far more rope with which to hang himself. The programme’s pronounced “let’s all gang up on the baddy” atmosphere (which David Dimbleby’s “moderation” did nothing to dispel) — even though Mr Griffin IS a very bad baddy, in my book — did nothing but fan the flames of the oh-what-poor-little-victims-are-we proto-fascist feeling that the BNP relies upon for its support.

  • Huhne – o.k. ; suffered from Dimbelby’s systemmatic habit of forgetting there’s a Lib Dem even on the panel

    Warsi – better than I’ve ever seen her before (but starts from a low point in my estimation !!)

    Straw – a bit clunky; I thought his clumsy attempt to turn every answer (whatever the subject) into a denunciation of the BNP was … shall we say unsubtle?

    Greer – brilliant; in her reactions (body and facial) as much as her words, though they were pretty good too! Loved her response to the idea of the KKK being acceptable when it’s the ‘non-violent’ KKK !!

    Griffin – weird, gurning conspiracy theorist.

  • I think Huhne was okay, the whole show was strange as Dimbleby was partisan and interrupted because he was keen to pin Griffin. Bonny was great and Griffin clearly can’t deal with women.

    The real shame is that the BBC made the show nearly all on issues that the BNP see as their turf. A few more questions that show them up as idiots / wacky would have helped.

    At the end Griffin sounded a real nutter when he started laying into the BBC for being a leftist conspiracy…

  • Herbert Brown 24th Oct '09 - 10:44am

    Interesting that the BBC is headlining a YouGov poll that “suggested support for the BNP has risen after Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time”. The rise in support is actually from 2% to 3%, and therefore completely insignificant in statistical terms. The report gives more prominence to the fact that “22% of people questioned would “seriously consider” voting BNP.” But it’s not clear whether that’s a question that’s ever been asked before; if so, the previous response to it is not stated.

    Anthony Wells comments more sensibly that “2-3% has been pretty much the norm for their support over the last couple of months” and points to a different question – whether people had a positive or negative opinion of the BNP. This poll gives 9% positive and 71% negative, whereas in June the figures were 11% positive and 72% negative. So it appears that in reality the media frenzy over Griffin’s Question Time appearance has had very little effect on how people perceive his party.

  • While prior to the QT debate I would have categorised myself as a Huhne supporter, I thought his comments on the night were disgraceful – as the blog noted, even Nick Griffin was able to use them for ammunition. He accepted the premise that folks from Europe are “immigrants”; supported the myth that legal visitors readily become illegal migrants; and confused border controls and policing visa holders. The effect was to support discriminatory controls, the belief that Britain is a magnet for folks who shouldn’t be here, and is over-populated by folks who don’t belong, and the overall BNP agenda. That’s not fighting the BNP, that’s being a mini-bnp.

    I am however heartened to see this questioning blog, and indeed many of the comments which stress a Liberal commitment to a more internationalist viewpoint. You don’t need to want open borders to have a welcoming attitude towards people who have come to Britain.

2 Trackbacks

  • By Opinion: A Liberal Line on Immigration on Fri 23rd October 2009 at 12:31 pm.

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    […] What did you make of Chris Huhne’s Question Time performance? #bbcqt by Stephen Tall on Lib Dem Voice. Did Chris miss his opportunity to present a liberal case for […]

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