Watching This Week on BBC1 last night you could have been excused for thinking some kind of ‘Men In Black’ mind wipe machine had been introduced in the studio Green Room.
Either that or the two longest sitting inhabitants of the famous red sofa had had something slipped into their complimentary Blue Nun as they fielded questions on this week’s events.
The reason for my astonishment was the blank looks and shrugged shoulders from both Labour stalwart Alan Johnson and Tory raconteur Michael Portillo when presenter Andrew Neil asked for their reaction to the news that seven police forces across the UK had now launched criminal inquiries into claims of election fraud allegedly perpetrated by the Conservatives during last year’s general election.
When asked, Portillo looked decidedly blank and claimed to have been ‘blind-sided’ by the question while Johnson said he’d only become aware of the story as he saw it on a screen as he came into the studio.
Even Jeremy the tortoise, crawling around the studio floor, looked decidedly dubious as both men, usually so knowledgeable about every random minutiae of current events, re-iterated that they’d never even heard of a scandal that has been around for weeks now and has the potential to bring down the government.
After a little more prompting Johnson finally admitted that he “had heard something about that” and jokingly asked “can we re-run the general election?”. Obviously a deliberately naïve suggestion, but not an entirely outlandish one as I’d expect a former Home Secretary to know.
If fraud is proven in some of these constituencies, there would be a case for a by-election to be called in each. Let’s not forget the reason many of these areas were specifically targeted by the Tory ‘battle-bus’ at the heart of these allegations was that they were marginal. If an election were to be re-run in each, a Tory win is by no means guaranteed, especially with local party machinery having just been found guilty of electoral fraud.
Cameron’s slim majority in Parliament may then slip beyond the point of no return, which would indeed probably lead to another General Election. Even if he hangs on by his fingernails it’s not a situation he’ll be able to manage for long, especially as his government has already done more U-turns than a one armed rower paddling up a particularly notorious creek.
So the answer to your flippant question Alan is a qualified “Yes”. So maybe you should be paying a bit more attention.
If I were to return to my former life as a psychologist for a moment, I might comment on the body language of both these pundits during Andrew Neil’s explanation of the events they claimed no knowledge of. Both sat there poker faced with firmly closed lips and tightly folded arms, a picture of studied innocence looking like two naughty schoolboys being asked if they were smoking in the school toilets. Their demeanour was a text book example inner denial. They did everything but stick their fingers in their ears and shout “la la la can’t hear you!!!”
So what was really going on?
Had they both agreed not to comment on this story if it came up? If so one wonders what Alan Johnson would get out of it. Although the virtual radio silence on this issue from Labour has been interesting, especially as they seem to have so much to gain. This has led to some speculation that they might also have expenses skeletons in cupboards they’d also rather not see opened.
The only other explanation would be that two seasoned politicians, both having held senior government positions, had not briefed themselves on what could be one of the major stories of the year. Also that neither apparently bothered to do any research outside of BBC news sources before coming on to a show where they knew they were going to be asked to comment on current events.
Of course the suggested partisan nature of BBC political coverage could also be partly to blame. Perhaps both guests had been told by the BBC not to comment, which begs the question as to why Neil even raised it. Unless he was being deliberately mischievous. He did at least acknowledge that the BBC is playing catch up on events, and that this is a story that has almost exclusively been run by Channel 4 and other independent news agencies.
The reality that she can’t keep ignoring events like this forever does seem belatedly to be filtering through to Auntie, even if it does earn her some withering stares from the people upstairs. But the BBC has not so much been asleep at the wheel on this one as through the garden wall and parked in someone’s living room.
It appears right now that, whilst in the BBC news and current affairs studios, mention of anything even slightly embarrassing to the Conservatives is verboten, with the mind bleach being applied liberally to invited guests, along with bucket loads of whitewash for the rest of us.
In which case I guess we can look forward to future editions of This Week with Jeremy the tortoise and Molly the dog being promoted to the sofa, whilst commentators like Portillo and Johnson happily play on the studio floor avoiding any awkward questions.
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