Dead policy sketch | Robert Hutton

Dead policy sketch |  Robert Hutton

We’re all trying to find the guys who did this. The House of Commons had returned from its Christmas break, and full of enthusiasm to establish exactly who was responsible for, well, everything. We would get to the National Health Service, but first we turned to the privatization of Channel 4.

A Channel 4 show about awkward ailments

Or rather, the non-privatisation of it. Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary, came to the chamber to explain that, for some reason, she’d found plans on her desk to sell off the broadcaster, which was the very last thing the government wanted to do. Or rather, it was something the last government wanted to do.

We learned this from Donelan’s reference to an outfit that is likely to pop up with increasing frequency in the coming weeks. “The previous administration” had been responsible for the idea, she explained.

Who are these awful people, these cultural vandals? Donelan was strangely vague on this point, and so should you be. The important thing now is surely to move forward, rather than obsess over unimportant details about who accepted what job under which prime minister, sometimes only to resign the next day.

Sadly Lucy Powell, for Labour, failed to enter into the spirit of-not-inquiring-closely-into-recent events. “What a total waste of time and money this has been,” she said, adding that at least £2 million had been spent preparing for the canceled privatization. Donelan didn’t dispute the figure, but denied the money had been wasted. If they ever want not to privatize another broadcaster, they’ll now be ready.

The news that the sale was off was greeted with joy from across the chamber. Labour’s Sir Chris Bryant — the knighthood was a late Christmas present from the king — said that Donelan knew the policy she’d inherited “was completely and utterly bonkers”, but lacked the courage to say: “I am sorry, my predecessor had completely lost the plot for completely unknown reasons.” Donelan did not entirely dispute this analysis.

So universal was the condemnation of the idea that it was quite hard to understand how it had ever been on the agenda. Until, that is, we got to Scott Benton, Tory MP for Blackpool South, who clearly hasn’t read all the memos about recent revisions in Conservative thinking. “Channel 4 has an unmistakable liberal-left metropolitan bias in its programming, particularly in its news output,” he growled. “So much so that it almost makes the BBC look impartial by comparison.”

Donelan patiently corrected him. Privatization had never been about punishing the broadcaster, she said. Perish the very thought! Of course, the idea that Nadine Dorries would have vindictively pursued revenge against the broadcaster for some perceived slight against Boris Johnson is laughable. Almost as laughable as the idea that, a few months ago, such a policy would have been supported by Tory MPs.

Hey, Sir Edward, we’re all trying to find the guys who did this.

We moved on to the NHS. If Benton gives off a permanent air of wanting to start a fight with anyone in Labor who thinks they can take him, The Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, is the Conservative Party’s Mr Reasonable, sent to calm things down and see if he can’t get us all just try to look at things from the other guy’s point of view.

The situation in the NHS is tricky, he explained, reasonably, and there are a lot of nasty bugs going about. His was a long statement, full of detail about things like “delayed discharge”, which sounds like something that might be covered in a Channel 4 show about awkward ailments. He didn’t try to pretend everything was fine, more that it was all terribly difficult, and really not anyone’s fault.

Labour’s Wes Streeting was having none of it. The system had collapsed, he said “because the government has failed to listen and to lead”. Ministers were to blame for everything: the strikes, the waiting lists, the clogged entrances and exits to hospitals. He had a carefully judged swipe at Rishi Sunak’s refusal to say whether he uses private healthcare: “The prime minister might not rely on the NHS, but millions of ordinary people do.” And he pointed out the problem with threatening the jobs of staff whose strikes fail to deliver minimum service levels: “How many nurses is he planning to sack? How many paramedics will he sack? How many junior doctors will he sack?”

But the most damaging intervention for the Conservatives came from their own benches. Tory MP Sir Edward Leigh demanded to know what the government’s plan was. “People of my age pay taxes all their lives and their only right is to join the back to a two-year queue,” he complained.

Hey, Sir Edward, we’re all trying to find the guys who did this.

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