2022vi1, Wednesday: The question that comes too late.

We’ve all kicked ourselves on occasion for missing the chance to ask about the thing that’s really important. Although sometimes the answer is too obvious for words…

Photo by Marcel Strauß on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s a few seconds. Sometimes half an hour. And sometimes it’s not till the following day.

But I can’t be alone – either among reporters (my former trade) or advocates (my current one) – in, far too often, having the lightbulb moment just too late. When an excellent question comes to mind only after you’ve put down the phone, or walked out the door, or watched the witness exit the box.

In the latter case, of course, a well-planned, well-prepped cross-examination should minimise the risk – although it does still happen.  (And as anyone who’s done this will testify, and frankly any barrister who says it’s never happened to them is a liar, the bigger risk is often asking one question too many than one too few.)

In a journalistic environment there’s sometimes a second bite at the cherry. A follow-up call. Or someone else you can talk to.

But it happens.

It’s now a decade and a half since I jacked in journalism, it having lost its remaining lustre for me following the Hutton Inquiry and the BBC’s retreat to pre-emptive, cowardly cringe. (And many too many editorial meetings where senior editors would try to force my desk to run a story which I said was – put as politely as I felt able – complete bollocks, because it had “a great top line”.) I asked a lot of hard questions during my time. But it wasn’t till after I left that I came across the concept of the “pre-mortem”, and realised that all the politicians, and businesspeople, and others that I talked to, as they sold some grand scheme or gold-plated plan, should have been confronted with a really simple question.

“What could go wrong with this?” 

Or: 

“What are the downsides?”

I know. They’d probably swerve the answer. Or I’d never get offered an interview again.

But it’s a critical question. Anyone planning something new with ramifications for people other than themselves who hasn’t thought, deeply and scarily, about what the downsides are, where the blowback might come from, ought never to be allowed to make decisions affecting anyone else. Ever again. Similarly, anyone who denies that any exist is immediately either a fool or a liar.

Talking about fools and liars… a similar thought has kept striking me as stories about letters to the 1922 Committee proliferated. Letters which say: Boris Johnson is no longer fit to be Prime Minister.

(It’ll be even more pressing once the results of the no-confidence vote hurriedly scheduled for today come in around 9pm or thereabouts.)

I haven’t the time, the energy or the self-loathing to read most of those letters, not in any depth or volume. (Jesse Norman’s being a notable and laudable exception, not least since – as David Allen Green points out – it trespasses into policy failings as well as political quagmires.) So some of them may answer this question.

But I can’t help wanting to ask those writing these more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger missives:

Set aside Partygate. Set aside Sue Gray, and the Met and all the sound and fury. If you’re saying Johnson isn’t fit for the office, that’s not just about what he’s done. It’s about who he is. 

So, simply put: what do you know now about him that you didn’t know when you made him party leader – and backed him for PM? What, really, is new?

Answers on a postcard. Speculating about how big a postcard is required is an exercise left for the reader.


(Incidentally, I know it’s been months since I last wrote. A lot has happened since then. I’m not quite ready to write about it. Nearly. But not quite. Bear with me. Please?)

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