UK Party leaders questioned on BBC ‘Question Time’

Friday, April 29, 2005

With the UK general election on May 5, three party leaders from the largest parties in the election answered questions live on the BBC at 19:30 UTC Thursday. Charles Kennedy (Liberal Democrats), Michael Howard (Conservative Party, currently Opposition) and Tony Blair (Labour Party, incumbent) were asked questions by an audience representative of the British public. The politicians were given no advance notice of the questions. David Dimbleby hosted the discussion, as he has other Question Time debates.

Topics that were raised included taxation and the new 50% top rate of tax proposed by the Lib Dems, immigration and controls proposed by the Conservatives, the largely negative campaigning launched by the Tories, and the legality of the Iraq war. Also, bullying and discipline in schools, further education and public health were issues raised.

Charles Kennedy’s period in the “hot chair” was notable for the largely benevolent questions posed to him, and considerable support evident from applause and cheering at the end of several points made. He attacked the British First Past the Post electoral system as “perverse” and said that he would support a proportional voting system if he got into power. When questioned as to whether, upon pressure from the US, he would go to war again in the Middle East without sufficient evidence, he replied strongly “No.” Further, he said he could not see the Liberal Democrats in another coalition with any other party that may come into power.

In contrast, the opposition leader entered accompanied with less enthusiasm, including several cries of “Howard is evil!” by several unidentifiable members of the audience. Michael Howard revealed during the debate that, if that he knew all of the things he knew now, he would have supported the invasion of Iraq with Tony Blair. However, he still upholds the illegality of the war and the way it began, and the apparent lies on the part of the Prime Minister to the people as primary reasons to vote for his party.

Tony Blair’s interview period was highlighted by the decision to go to war on Iraq, and the Attorney General’s advice in a recently leaked dossier. Difficult questions relevant to the amount of consultation he made with his Cabinet members and the Intelligence groups, and the amount of division within his cabinet with regards to the Iraq War were raised. The Prime Minister was visibly under pressure, and was openly surprised at several statements made by the public present. Upon hearing that local surgeries did not allow appointments to be booked until less than 48 hours before an available time in order to meet government targets, he was unprepared and appeared surprised.

Toward the end of the discussion, hecklers in the front row interrupted the rounding up of the program.

Considering the content of Question Time, it would seem that the problem of Iraq, and whether the British public can trust the current Prime Minister, may overshadow political debate concerning domestic issues.

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