I have recently returned from a bonding week-end with my parliamentary colleagues. These innovative events were introduced to my Party by William Hague, who borrowed them from the corporate sector, - probably McKinseys, where he spent his formative years. They involve spending the week-end with the same people that you spend the week with, in the belief that, if you meet them wearing sweaters rather than suits, this will reveal hidden qualities which lead to enduring relationships. (Any gain has to be balanced against the loss of quality time with wife and family, who don’t expect to see the MP during the week, but hope they might catch a glimpse of him during the week-end.)
One of the speakers at our bonding week-end was Brian Walden. Older readers will remember Brian as the Presenter of Weekend World; and even older readers will remember him as a Labour MP. He appeared at our week-end because he is a convert to my Party, having been won round by Margaret Thatcher. He spoke with vigour, humour and conviction and should be despatched to every marginal seat in the country to spread the gospel.
The last time I met him was on his programme. Nowadays, an interview on television lasts 20 seconds if you are a member of the public, three minutes if you are MP, and about 20 minutes if you are Prime Minister. On Week-End World in the 1980’s, it lasted an hour if you were Minister for Housing. So anxious for me to appear on the programme were the organisers that they sent two cars to fetch me from my home on a Sunday, lest the first car carrying me broke down. (One car was provided for the return journey)
Brian’s technique was to break the interview down into about six component parts, for each of which he had a desired outcome. At the end of the interview, he would assemble the six desired outcomes, put them together and pronounce them to be a damning condemnation of whatever policy he was reviewing.
The only problem with the Walden technique was that the Minister he was interviewing probably knew more about the subject than Brian did (though this was not always the case). So the denouement would not always go as planned.
When this happened, he had another trick up his sleeve. The presenters of the programme wanted to extract something from the 60 minutes that the rest of the media would pick up as a story. Journalists writing on Sunday for Monday would watch the programme for inspiration – or for gaffes.
Thus it was that, after an innocuous reply from me to one of his questions, Brian paused, leant forward, and stabbed me with his finger. “Minister” he said “You have just said something vewy intewesting.” “I want to pwess you on that a little further.”
My heart froze. The last thing any Minister wants to hear on any political programme is that he has said something interesting. Our whole professional training is focussed on avoiding saying anything at all. So I spent the rest of the programme convincing him that what I had said was devoid of any interest at all.
Today, Ministers have a new solution to avoiding saying anything interesting on television. They simply refuse to be interviewed.