The most excruciating political interviews ever, ranked

Colin Drury
·5-min read
Health secretary Matt Hancock is questioned by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain about why he voted against free school meals in October 2020 (Good Morning Britain)
Health secretary Matt Hancock is questioned by Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain about why he voted against free school meals in October 2020 (Good Morning Britain)

It is the interview that has seemingly had half the country screaming at their screens throughout Wednesday.

Matt Hancock’s repeated refusal to answer whether he regretted voting against free schools may well end up going down as one of the most excruciating pieces of British political TV ever.

The health secretary avoided the question half a dozen times when asked by Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, saying only that he was “really glad” a government U-turn had been made.

“Matt Hancock must believe in nationalisation,” wrote Labour MP Charlotte Nichols afterwards, “given that he keeps getting publicly owned.”

But just how does his humiliation rank among previous car crash exchanges? Let’s countdown the very worst six…

6. Jeremy Corbyn Vs Andrew Neil

As leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn’s general attitude to the media appeared to be astonishment that anyone would be so impertinent as to question him.

To Andrew Neil – a man whose own questions often have the air of a knee-high, two-foot tackle – this was probably red rag to a rottweiler.

When the pair clashed in the build up to the 2019 general election, the former Daily Politics host offered his guest four separate opportunities to apologise for his handling of anti-Semitism within his party. Each one was declined. Mr Corbyn could only bring himself to say he was determined society should be “safe for people of all faiths”.

He lost the election in a historic Tory landslide.

5. Barry Gardiner vs Emily Maitlis

AKA: the eyeroll.

It takes a rare journalistic talent to lance someone with a facial expression alone, but Emily Maitlis made a flick of her orbs speak a million incredulous words during a 2019 Brexit interview with Labour’s Barry Gardiner.

The shadow secretary for international trade told the genial-until-deadly BBC anchor that his party’s manifesto would not be “made up on Newsnight”, bringing forth a look of astonishment from his interrogator.

“It’s not been made up at all,” she replied before ending the conversation dismissively. “Let’s move on.”

A watching Nadhim Zahawi could be seen trying (though not very hard) not to laugh.

4. Boris Johnson (not) vs Jonathan Swain

By the very nature of the office, a British prime minister should carry themselves with dignity and gravitas. They should be both fearless and happy to be held accountable.

Anyway, in 2019, Boris Johnson hid in a fridge to avoid being questioned by ITV reporter Jonathan Swain.

The then PM hotfooted it into the safety of the industrial cooler after being approached unawares by a team from Good Morning Britain during a trip to a milk farm. “I’ll be with you in a second,” the Tory leader said dashing into the first door he saw. “He’s been taken into a fridge,” said a bemused Swain to the millions watching at home.

For their part, BoJo’s aides later insisted he had not been hiding; merely preparing – amid the milk bottles – for another interview.

3. Matt Hancock vs Kay Burley

It probably goes without saying that Matt Hancock could have had this entire list sown all up all by himself. A special mention in particular goes to the time he told BBC Breakfast: “It’s very good to have me on.”

But his response to Kay Burley’s suggestion that the coronavirus test-and-trace system was rushed into existence to distract from other government problems (ie. Dominic Cummings) was, well, rather unorthodox: he grinned, he chuckled, he laughed manically.

“It’s priceless!” he gurned. “I’m normally accused of delaying these things!”

It was left to Burley herself to remind the health secretary they were discussing a pandemic that had already left tens of thousands dead.

2. Michael Howard vs Jeremy Paxman

For many, perhaps, the daddy of all skewerings.

So (in)famous has this 1997 run-in become that it’s pretty much part of the UK’s cultural fabric now; a moment of shared history that is never far from a TV-replay somewhere. Just like you don’t need to know anything about EastEnders to still somehow be aware that Dirty Den divorced Ang on Christmas Day, so you don’t need to know anything about politics to have seen Jeremy Paxman monstering Michael Howard.

Twelve times the Newsnight anchor asked the then Tory home secretary if he had over-ruled his own prisons chief. That’s 12 times. So often that if it was a football score, the Grandstand video printer would have typed it out in long form to show that no, it wasn’t a mistake; yes, it really meant 12 (twelve). And still, over two grueling minutes, Mr Howard declined to answer.

He later went on to lead the party.

1. Chloe Smith vs Jeremy Paxman

So bad was Tory MP Chloe Smith’s 2012 encounter with Jeremy Paxman that it felt less like watching an interview, more like witnessing a blood sport. If it had been a boxing match, it would have been called off after the first question. Stop! Stop! She’s dead already!

Newsnight’s grand inquisitor pretty much impaled the then 30-year-old treasury minister with his opening line and continued to expose, ridicule and express incredulity at the lack of grip on her brief for eight and a half eviscerating minutes. All while Smith, herself, increasingly gave the impression of a woman trying to hide behind her own fringe.

Worst perhaps was her interrogator’s final question: “Do you ever think you’re incompetent?” It wasn’t even asked with malice. Paxman appeared, by that point, genuinely curious.

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