Thoughts on intervewing the Prime Minister
3 Feb 2004
My colleagues who chair Select Committees and I had our fourth session with the Prime Minister, cross-questioning him for two and a half hours.
As one of his political adversaries, I concede that he is a good performer in this environment, giving every bit as good as gets.
You can tell if you have irritated him - he works your Christian name into his reply. I scored one or two "George's" as we crossed swords about the aftermath of Hutton.
Perhaps two and a half hours is half an hour too long; two hours would give us the opportunity to cross-examine him extensively, without running the risk of the session running out of steam and its participants out of stamina. He was lucky enough to have a pot of tea delivered half way through, while the rest of us had to make do with bottled water.
There were half a dozen times when I thought "Hullo - something is going on here" One was when the Labour MP's on the Committee made it clear that they were frustrated at the way decisions are taken within Government, feeling that they are cut out of the process and the Special Advisers have too much influence. While the PM justified his style of Government by saying that, at the end of the day, someone had to take a decision and the Party had to decide whether or not to back him, I suspect there will be much more care taken in future before the Labour Party is surprised by a new initiative.
The second was when Michael Mates asked him about Northern Ireland. Michael made the point that one Civil Servant - Jonathan Powell - was enormously influential in the decision-making process in the Province; but his Select Committee was unable to interview him. The PM conceded the point and said he would look at the issue again. Several other Select Committees would like to interview the No 10 Policy Advisers, who are sometimes seen as more influential than Departmental Ministers. Will we get our toe in the door now?
Then the PM conceded that the proposed abolition of the Lord Chancellor had not been well-handled. While not apologising for the policy, he recognised - and took responsibility for - the confusion that accompanied the announcement.
Michael Jack asked for the data supplied by the Delivery Unit to the recent Cabinet Awayday at Chequers. The PM tried to fend this off by saying that the papers also contained policy advice - which was never published; but was left looking exposed when Michael asked him to remove the policy advice and publish the data which showed whether or not the Government was hitting its many targets. I expect Michael will follow this up.
Finally, I was not totally convinced by the PM's replies to my questions. After denying the need for another enquiry into WMD right up to last Sunday, the reasons for conceding one on Tuesday were not overpowering. I still believe that President Bush took him by surprise.
Overall, the PM did well. But the Liaison Committee also performed more effectively. We hunted as a pack, following a predetermined line of attack, and stopped the PM taking the meeting over by giving excessively long answers. All in all, a good day for democracy. And I hope my soundbite, about the world of the spinner meeting the world of the spook, makes it into tomorrow's Press.
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Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015