Those Political Ambush Interviews In Full

John Rentoul

milk Those Political Ambush Interviews In FullJust to be different, I was going to write a column about the art of the ambush interview last weekend, after the Prime Minister failed to answer two questions correctly on the Letterman Show in the US last week.

But it would have been odd not to write about the state of the Labour Party on the Sunday of its annual conference, so I did that instead.

However, you would not want my top-quality research (“Can anyone remember?” plus Googling) to go to waste, so here are my Top Nine Political Ambush Interviews in chronological order.

1. Stephen Byers, schools minister, by BBC Radio 5 Live, January 1998. What is seven times eight? 54. A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “The Prime Minister and those responsible for government communications applaud anything which gets up in lights the issues we are seeking to promote.” David Blunkett, Byers’s boss, had nearly been caught out the same day, when, launching the numeracy strategy, he had been asked to multiply eight by nine and started to say “six-” before correcting himself to 72.

2. Gordon Brown by Thomas Ebbutt, 13, on BBC Newsround, March 1998. What is 13 squared? “We wanted to test out his maths because as Chancellor he should be able to do his sums,” said Ebbutt. Brown paused to repeat the question but answered “169” without further ado.*

3. George Bush by Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV, the NBC affiliate, during a break in campaigning in New Hampshire, November 1999.
“Can you name the president of Chechnya?”
“No, can you?” Bush replied.
“Can you name the president of Taiwan?” Hiller asked.
“Yeah, Lee,’” responded Bush, referring to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui.
“Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?” asked Hiller, inquiring about Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, who took over the previous month in a military coup.
“Wait, wait, is this 50 questions?” replied Bush.
Hiller replied: “No, it’s four questions of four leaders in four hot spots.”
Bush said: “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected – not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.”
Hiller persisted, saying “Can you name him?”
Bush said: “General. I can name the general. General.”
“And the prime minister of India?” asked Hiller, inquiring about a man who had recently been re-elected.
Bush said: “The new prime minister of India is – no.”
“The person who is running for president is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy contestant,” said Karen Hughes, Bush communications director. The president of Chechnya, the Russian breakaway republic, was Aslan Maskhadov; the prime minister of India was Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

4. Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool and president of Hartlepool FC, by Ian Herbert of The Independent, February 2001.
“Who plays left-back for Hartlepool, Mr Mandelson?” Mandelson was saved by manager Chris Turner intervening: “We don’t pick the team until tomorrow.”

5. Richard Caborn by Clare Balding on BBC Radio 5 Live, June 2001
Could the sports minister name three jockeys riding at Ascot; who is the England cricket coach; three European golfers playing in the US Open; the captain of the Lions rugby squad; and the four semi-finalists in the Stella Artois tennis championship. He failed to answer one correctly.

6. Gordon Brown by Mark Lancaster, Conservative MP for NE Milton Keynes, in the House of Commons, May 2008.
“Last weekend, the Prime Minister claimed to share people’s pain at the rising cost of living, so can he tell the House how much it costs to fill up a family car in his constituency and when exactly he last had to do it himself?”
This was a bit unfair, as Brown does not drive on account of his eyesight, but he tried to answer, apparently misunderstanding the prompts from behind him to start with. “The cost of petrol has gone up as a result of what is happening around the world. A barrel of oil is now $110. A litre of petrol—” [Interruption.]
The Speaker: “Order. Allow the Prime Minister to speak.”
“A litre of petrol is now £1.10 in many places, and it is rising in some other places. The important thing is that we have postponed the fuel duty increase, and we are doing what we can to work with OPEC to get the price of oil down.”

7. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, by pensioner Wally Cosgrove on ITV South West, September 2008.
How much is the basic state pension? “Er… about £30 isn’t it?” No, it was about £93 a week.

8. Jim Paice, farming minister, at the height of the row over milk prices in July this year.
Did he know the cost of a pint? “No, because my wife buys most of it. But I have checked where it comes from.” It was about 46p.

9. David Cameron by David Letterman last week.
Who composed “Rule Britannia”? Cameron guessed Edward Elgar, but it was Thomas Arne. “I’ve ended my career on your show tonight,” said Cameron. When was Magna Carta signed? 1215. Correct. Where was it signed? Runnymede, which is also correct, although it is not certain that it was actually signed on Magna Carta Island in the river Thames, as Cameron said. What is the literal translation of Magna Carta? Cameron said he did not know. (Latin for Great Charter.)

*Update: This was an unusual one, in that (a) it was a hard question and (b) Brown got it right. Tom Ebbutt has just been in touch to say that he didn’t actually know what the answer was when he asked the question (thus breaking rule 1 in the book), and that there was “an awkward silence” afterwards when Brown asked, “Is that right?”

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  • Ian Kempt

    For me the Katie Couric/ Sarah Palin interview still rates highly

  • Henry Hill

    How about Eddie Mair vs Francis Maude over his launch of ‘the Big Society’?

  • greggf

    “This was an unusual one, in that (a) it was a hard question and (b) Brown got it right.”

    You must be joking….!

  • porkfright

    Just goes to show what a load of totally unqualified politicians the world has to offer.

  • Susan G.

    Drunk or sober Dubya could always be relied on to fall for a pretzel… Not being able to translate ‘magna carta’ is peculiar- maybe Cameron was in Eton’s woodwork class instead?

  • Pacificweather

    I always thought that Gordon Brown had a kink in his brain. He could work out 13 squared but not that 30% is greater than 3% or the price of gold was at a record low. Or maybe he just did not give a damn.

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