The new era of openness and dialogue just shot itself in the foot. Downing Street's refusal to put up a front-bencher on last night's Question Time unless Alastair Campbell was removed from the panel was the worst kind of self-seeking 'old politics'.
Campbell is without doubt a controversial figure, much disliked on the right and not universally popular on the left. But he is well informed, passionate, an excellent communicator and has been at the heart of Labour policy making for many years. It is difficult to see how he could be anything but an asset and stimulus to a sparky debate. In attempting to manipulate, one might even say to bully the BBC, the coalition displays the very behaviour of which the Labour 'spin machine' has, with justification, so often been accused. It is greatly to the credit of the BBC that it refused to give way.
All (lower-case) liberals must surely deplore such a craven error of judgement. In the week of the Queen's Speech and in which the first tranche of public spending cuts were announced, it is astonishing that this important forum of public debate was deprived of a front-bench spokesperson. The argument that Campbell is unelected will not hold water. Many members of the Lords are effective contributors to Question Time and it is likely that Number 10 was more concerned about Campbell's effectiveness in debate than in making the case for a like-for-like matching.
It should be remembered that the title of the programme is not 'Answer Time'. At its heart is an opportunity for members of the public to ask questions. Inadequate panellists who cannot answer questions effectively or sustain their arguments in debate will be exposed. What is now remembered from the appearance of Nick Griffin on Question Time last October is not the controversy surrounding his appearance or the discussion as to who should appear with him, but his piteous showing which must have contributed to the electoral failure and internal disorder of the BNP.
The authoritarianism displayed by the government is inimical to open democratic debate. It looks as though the coalition's advisors and communications staff need to get up to speed on the 'new politics'.