Starter for ten

June 25, 2003 ,

RECENTLY a team of MPs submitted themselves to the ultimate humiliation of being thrashed by journalists on ‘University Challenge'.

This week I introduced the presenter Jeremy Paxman at a conference in Westminster. He admitted that the House of Commons could easily have produced a better team.

In fact David Liddington one of the members of the all-time champion University Challenge team is a Tory MP.

I confessed to Jeremy Paxman that I had also appeared on University Challenge as a student.

That was in a gentler age when Bamber Gascoigne asked the questions.
But many MPs turned down the recent invitation fearing a set-up.

The Westminster conference was about political “scrutiny”. Many people do not realise that local councils have changed hugely in recent years.

They now have cabinets to take decisions instead of subject committees. Now the committees are supposed to scrutinise the decisions of councils, like Select Committees do in parliament.

Cardiff pioneered this change. Before becoming an MP, I chaired Cardiff's Economic Scrutiny Committee. Amongst other things we produced a well-received report on the impact of the Millennium Stadium.

Mr Paxman is very keen on scrutiny, as anyone who watches ‘Newsnight' will know. He had advice about how to ask questions for politicians who are on Scrutiny Committees.

“Decide what it is you wish to find out, and keep asking until you get a proper answer”.

Famously he once asked the then Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, the same question fourteen times in a row.

But he also said, “be prepared to accept the possibility that there could be an innocent explanation for something that smells fishy”.

When I introduced him I reminded him that he had admitted in his recent book “The Political Animal” that the media can be too strong. They can determine what is, or is not, an issue. They have “power without responsibility” as Rudyard Kipling once said.

Paxman is obviously a man who is fascinated by politics, and says he admires politicians for trying to improve the world, but wants to keep them honest.

Unfortunately the gong went before I could ask him this “starter for ten”

“As you are clearly fascinated by politics have you ever considered standing for election yourself? Or would you miss all the power and influence?”