As per normal, the hustings started with around 14 minutes of "Please smooze about Charlie and self-flagellate over his resignation. Birch rods will be provided." This arrived in the form of "If Charles Kennedy was standing in this election, would he win?" Let us analyse the sheer stupidity of this question:
- How are the candidates supposed to know?
- Charles Kennedy isn't standing. Charles Kennedy is not our leader anymore. What do we find out about the candidates who ARE standing by asking this question? Nothing. They all made virtually identikit speeches about how Charles Kennedy made a difficult decision, motherhood and apple pie except for Simon Hughes who added his "It weren't me who did it, guv" routine. So why ask the question? Exactly. Get a grip, people!
QT moved onto the inevitable "discussion of the political implications for Mark Oaten of Mark Oaten's sex scandal" (note - Mark Oaten is ALSO *NOT* standing in this election). I was rather bored by this point and noted that Menzies was wearing his salmon pink tie again. I decided Chris Huhne has quite a sexy voice - it's deep and resonant with an underlying softness, kinda like Sean Connery if he wasn't Scottish. After discussing Mark Oaten's sex scandal, Simon Hughes was quizzed on HIS sexual proclivities and decided to discuss hospitals instead.
Some subtle policy differences emerged over Iraq. Menzies thought arbitrary timetables on withdrawal were inappropriate, that we needed to sort out infrastructure first and that other countries had little enthusiasm for replacing our troops. Chris and Simon thought that if we don't set an (arbitrary) timetable for withdrawal then the troops will remain there indefinitely and that our troops do not have the 'honest broker' status they require for effecting assistance in Iraq. In Chris Huhne's words "they are part of the problem, not part of the solution". Menzies sounded pretty authoritative but that's expected - foreign policy is his area.
The next question was about tax. All 3 referred to the Tax Commission reporting in the autumn, but unlike Radio 4's Any Questions? it was possible to discern subtle differences in their views. Chris Huhne wanted 'fairer' taxation without increasing the tax burden. He defined fairer taxation as removing the regressivity of current tax by which the top 10% of income earners pay a lower percentage of their income in tax than the bottom 10%. He hoped to use green tax revenue to take the lowest income earners out of tax. Simon Hughes was in favour of increasing the tax burden.Consensus broke out for several minutes over tax exemptions on second homes and whether the party should move to the left of Labour before QT moved onto the Lib Dems role in a hung parliament. This is a very silly question IMO since it wastes at least 10 minutes of a leadership husting and there may not even BE a hung parliament. The only points of mild interest were Menzies regarding Gordon Brown and Malcolm Rifkind as friends, and Simon Hughes saying we can get more than 100 MPs at the next election. The latter seemed a figure plucked from thin air. Simon didn't really have a good QT - he was caught out over some statements about the other candidates on his website. My suspicion is he didn't know what was on his website which isn't as damning as blatantly lying but doesn't inspire confidence.
Following a random question about regional assemblies, someone asked whether experience in Westminster was useful in a party leader. This was an obvious "anti-Chris Huhne" question which I thought Chris dealt with pretty well. He made an excellent ripost to Simon, pointing out that he was asking questions of ministers before the Bermondsey by-election whilst he was a journalist.
The final few minutes were uninspiring, producing two 'revelations'. First Menzies didn't want Charles on the anti-war march because he was concerned that it was anti-American (euphemism for 'I don't like Trots'). Second that Simon thought we had a 'shopping list' of policies going into the last election rather than a vision for Britain (I agree).
I think Chris 'won' the husting. He's gained in confidence during the campaign - his body language and voice are both far more animated than during Meeting the Challenge and the Radio 4 debate. Simon made several missteps and, unfortunately, sounded insincere. I felt Menzies was pushed into the background by the interplay between Simon, Chris and David Dimbleby.