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Tom Richmond: Soundbite culture has let our politicians duck debate

Tory grandee Ken Clarke on the election trail in Mansfield.
Tory grandee Ken Clarke on the election trail in Mansfield.
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TORY grandee Ken Clarke has never shirked a challenge or interview request – even when it has landed him in hot water. He’s the former Chancellor who inadvertently described Theresa May as “a bloody difficulty woman” during the 2016 leadership contest.

First elected to Parliament in 1970, the Father of the House is, like many others, concerned about the poor calibre of today’s politicians and how they only communicate in soundbites.

He has a point. A senior member of Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s governments, Mr Clarke told Channel 4 News this week that part of his duties involved selling policies to a sceptical public.

“I wanted to go out there, take part in the debate, explain why I was doing what I was doing, answer my critics, and answer the criticisms,” he said.

“I think you were expected [to] in the Thatcher and Major governments and before that. Cabinet ministers had to combine some executive skills with the ability to go out and look out for themselves and argue their case and try to win the argument.”

Mr Clarke says this changed when the main parties started hiring polling and communications experts who were risk-averse, believed key messages like ‘strong and stable’ had to be repeated parrot-like – and discouraged politicians from straying onto more contentious issues.

I agree. Public and media appearances by Ministers are so tightly controlled today that they risk becoming irrelevant. It should not be like this. As Mr Clarke would say, robust debate actually helps to shape arguments and policies. And, on a related point, when was the last time a very senior Minister went on a programme like Question Time or Any Questions?

They used to in the past. Now they don’t unless they’re forced to go on Andrew Marr’s Sunday show out of necessity. And, if the party leaders can manage it, they won’t even appear on Channel 4 News – or Radio 4’s Today programme – during election campaigns for fear of being caught out.

Perhaps they should. For, if they 
did, the exchanges might make 
them better politicians and lead to greater statesmanship.

MACAVITY strikes again. The Yorkshire Post would like to have interviewed Transport Secretary Chris Grayling 
this week about the probity of the promised £780m upgrade of the East Coast Main Line.

What a shame that the Department for Transport only notified this newspaper just 14 minutes before the Cabinet minister’s visit to the HS2 college in Doncaster where he accused critics of talking down the North.

Presumably Mr Grayling was busy signing off the £600m bailout of Crossrail in London by the DfT and Network Rail which was sneaked out on the day Parliament adjourned for the summer recess. The word ‘cowardice’ comes to mind.

CHRIS Grayling’s contempt is even more indefensible after a colleague recounted the plight of a lady with a walking stick, aged in her mid-50s, as she tried to get on a TransPennine Express service from Leeds to Manchester.

It was just three carriages long, and she had to beg to other passengers to let her board a crammed carriage. “I’ve already been turned away from two other trains because they were so full,” she pleaded.

Her cry for help was, thankfully, heeded by some of the more chivalrous passengers, but it shows why the upgrade of this line must be a national priority.

IT would have been better if Skipton and Ripon MP Julian Smith – still the Government’s chief whip – answered questions this week over pairing arrangements and his mishandling of the botched Brexit vote.

This comes after Tory chairman Brandon Lewis reneged upon an agreement to sit out a division on customs policy, which was too close to call, because Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson was absent on maternity leave.

The issue is the prevailing culture of secrecy. Why can’t any arrangements be published in advance on the Order Paper? David Lidington, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, disagrees. He said: “There are often Members who are going through periods of ill health or great family and personal stress... it is not always right for the pairing arrangements to be made public.”

He forgets, however, that Ministers and MPs are answerable to the public and those with nothing to hide should have nothing to fear from this transparency test.

TALKING of David Lidington, who is Theresa May’s de facto deputy, it appears he has picked up on my suggestion last week that a Ministerial job be offered to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the rebellious Brexiteer-in-chief. He advised the Government’s chief critic: “Those who start out not being the blue-eyed boys of the Whips Office usually end up being recruited into it.”

FINGERS crossed that Geraint Thomas wins the Tour de France this weekend and keeps the yellow jersey. Cycling’s most likable chap, I had the privilege of meeting – and interviewing – him before the 2014 Grand Départ. Charming, self-effacing, modest, he’s a superstar who has never forgotten his roots.

And his advice to youngsters is still relevant today. “Do it with mates,” he said. “It’s a great way to get outside. It’s a bit of adventure when you’re young and you go even five miles away. If you want to race, look up your club on the internet. See what is out there. Meet people and away you go.”

That’s what he did. And look where it’s taken him. Good luck G.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk