Yes, Diane Abbott's LBC interview was awkward – but she doesn't deserve your onslaught of abuse

Sean O'Grady
Diane Abbott has come under fire after an awkward LBC radio interview: BBC

Why the hate, I wonder? Unlike most of those now piling in to humiliate her, I’ve met Diane Abbott a few times. She struck me as being an intelligent person who, yes, would make a perfectly good Home Secretary. She has some charm, though I’ve also met many who dispute that, and sometimes she can sound patronising. In any case, she is not an idiot, or stupid or lazy or whatever it is that her critics are attempting to insinuate. So what’s she done to deserve this wave of opprobrium?

She got a figure wrong. And then she floundered a bit. Live on LBC radio in an interview with Nick Ferrari. That’s it. That’s the crime. After that she was verbally beaten up by the BBC’s Jo Coburn, who replayed the LBC interview at her. Abbott remained impassive, impressively in the circumstances, but she was plainly being humiliated. She didn’t talk herself out of the situation very well. But it was a cheap and rather cruel trick, reminiscent of when Jeremy Vine replayed to Gordon Brown the then prime minister’s embarrassing remarks about Gillian Duffy (the "bigoted woman” as Brown notoriously called her) back in the 2010 general election. Abbott’s lapse was nowhere near as damaging as that.

As Abbott tried to point out, she’d done seven interviews on the same topic – Labour’s proposal to recruit another 10,000 police officers – without a hitch. Then she slipped up. She didn’t accidentally launch a nuclear strike on Norway or absentmindedly hand Gibraltar back to Spain or get caught drink driving; she made a mistake about some costings. We need to calm down.

All I can ask of Nick Ferrari, Jo Coburn and the rest is for them to remember if they’ve ever forgotten a number, or “misspoke” as the phrase goes, or just made a mistake. Ah, the argument goes, but they’re not running to be a cabinet minister, and don’t need the same level of grip on policy detail, do they? That’s true, but even cabinet ministers can make mistakes, often as not cleared up by the civil servants and unbeknownst to the general public. In fact there have been some notoriously thick, dull and idle people in all sorts of roles in government who’ve graced the Cabinet Room in No 10 Downing Street. Some of the cleverer ones with encyclopaedic memories and prodigious powers of reasoning have also proved disastrous at actually getting stuff done.

As for Abbott’s fitness to become Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department, well, there have certainly been worse incumbents, both in terms of their competence (Jack Straw, Henry Brooke, Joynson-Hicks and, in this particular job, Winston Churchill, for example, if you know your history).

Another 10,000 coppers on the streets is a good idea, and worth debating, but she’s not being allowed to make the case.

Diane Abbott is on the right side of the argument on refugees, too, and that should not be forgotten or taken for granted. Since 2010, we have had two Conservative Home Secretaries on top of their briefs – Theresa May and Amber Rudd – but who used that ability to make up every bureaucratic excuse in the book to avoid rescuing homeless Syrian children from squalid camps in Europe. Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn would end that disgrace, and for that they can be allowed the odd gaffe.

I have written before about the unconscious and conscious racism and sexism that infects so much of the coverage of Diane Abbott, and which she has had to deal with for decades. I agree she has done some hypocritical things and some of her policies are wrong. But she does not deserve the vicious kicking she is getting now nor the unrelenting racism that has long filled the comments sections on political websites and elsewhere. Go ahead and look up some of the stuff that gets written about her, Chuka Umunna, Keith Vaz, Sadiq Khan and other BAME public figures, if you can stomach it. That’s why I sympathise with her – because she can do no right.