In Fiona Bruce Question Time has a fine new referee, but it's still a bear pit

The BBC made deliberate editorial choices twenty odd years ago to turn their Question Time format into bear pit. They expanded the panel to include, more often than not, a polemical columnist, and some kind of celebrity, whose role, whether they realise it or not, is to manifest the generalised loathing of politicians that has come to be an accepted part of our culture.

And people don’t go to bear pits through any great interest in who is refereeing the contest, which makes appraising the performance of its new host, Fiona Bruce, somewhat difficult.

Victory on Question Time is decided principally via clap-o-meter. And to elicit a clap from a Question Time audience, all any panelist need do is perfect the outraged cadence of their words. On that matrix, Ms Bruce had her own round of applause within three minutes, when the Tory MP and now regular guest James Cleverly failed to take any of the first three opportunities to answer a very straightforward question.

Ms Bruce’s first episode fell way below the peak Question Time standard that has been set in recent years, which is to say a 1984 style 60 minute hate, during which Leave voting Northern audiences can howl their disgust at their Westminster overlords who, roughly five times out of six, are Remainers. She was lucky she only had to venture as far as Islington.

Her best moment certainly came when James Cleverly was asked what would be his “Plan B” when he inevitably loses the vote on Tuesday. When she finally compelled him to wave a bat in the direction of the question, what she got back was that Theresa May’s deal is “the only deal on offer”, which the audience jeered along to remind is, very obviously, Plan A.

“Where was Plan B,” she asked, before extending her gaze outwards to the audience. “Did I miss it folks?” The laughter that followed was delightfully undermining.

But last night as last week, the week before that, and in the weeks that are certainly yet to come, the dramatic high point, the rap of panic in the chest, came when the panelists did as required and hurled abuse thinly veiled abuse at one another.

The comedian Nish Kumar called Melanie Philips racist, the audience went wild. She jabbed his finger back at him. “This guy doesn’t care about evidence. This guy doesn’t read.”

There is, presumably, a time and a place for the host of the Mash Report and an angry columnist considered several decades past her best to have a row about stop and search on national TV. But it’s 78 days til Brexit now, and that time and place might not be on a TV show that once upon a time vaguely involved holding powerful politicians to account.

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