Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
There is always plenty to talk about when journalists get together with politicians and the annual House of Commons reception for the Journalists' Charity was no exception given that it was the first chance to swap gossip about the outcome of the general election and life under a new coalition government.  Not surprisingly the burning issue at the question time session (14.6.2010)  – at £10 a go –   was speculation about how long the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration might last. Anna Botting, Sky News presenter and a Journalists’ Charity council member, was in charge of proceedings and ensured a plentiful supply of topical questions.    Chris Boffey introduced a politically balanced line-up but one which he admitted probably followed too closely the current House of Commons protocol of being ‘a middle-aged and all-white panel’: the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Alderdice, the former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly; the long-serving Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government; and the Labour MP and former Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Hain.  Lord Alderdice was convinced the coalition government would go the distance and he thought the big question for students of British politics was to work out what the coalition would look like after the next general election. Peter Hain was put on the spot by being reminded that if he had stayed a Liberal he might have been back in the cabinet. He said he was ‘never very popular’ when he was ‘a fiery young Liberal’ so he did not think he would have ever ended up in the coalition cabinet.  He agreed with Lord Alderdice it was hard to predict the future: ‘If the Liberal Democrats don’t get electoral reform, the coalition will blow apart...if they do, anything is possible’. The three parliamentarians created a slight frisson among the audience when they succeeded in turning the tables on their inquisitors when it came to questions on that touchy subject of parliamentary expenses. Peter Bottomley challenged journalists – well respected for their application to the task of filling up expenses forms – to log on to the website of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to see if they could complete its questionnaire for MPs without making a mistake; some of the questions were ‘unanswerable’. Peter Hain suggested it was time journalists disclosed their expenses on line for the public to inspect. He agreed with Peter Bottomley that new system for MPs was ‘incredibly complicated’ and if only it could be simplified they could get on with their job representing their constituents. ‘No one levelled accusations at me, or Peter Bottomley, but we were all tarnished...I had no idea what was going on when I was leader of the House of Commons for two years but I understand the anger you are expressing about mortgages which don’t exist’. Lord Alderdice did his best mends fences between the politicians and the media by suggesting that no trade union would ever agree to the hours of working which were accepted by MPs as well as journalists.  ‘The expectations of what MPs can deliver are enormously high and I think the real crisis is the increasing difficulty of getting people to come into political life’. Answers to the question, ‘What was Gordon Brown’s biggest mistake?’ were pretty blunt:Peter Hain:  ‘Probably not calling the election which he allowed to develop as a story in October 2007’.Peter Bottomley: ‘As David Cameron said, Gordon Brown was the first politician to call off an election because he was going to win it’.Lord Alderdice: ‘Not realising he was not a number one guy, but a number two’. END