Alison Rowat: BBC/Sky leaves minister red-faced as lobster treatment dispensed

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Therese Coffey is not one of the best-known and most publicized operatives in British politics.

The Secretary for Work and Pensions would make a winning answer on Useless if the category was “MPs elected in 2010”. Otherwise, she would be among the last people a party would choose to fight fires on Sunday political broadcasts. Yet we were there.

“The silence of the tweets” was the first sign that something was wrong. Sunday shows usually announce their lineups in the early evening on Saturdays. Not this time. The BBC tweet dropped at 11:04 p.m., followed by Sky News at 6:49 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Either someone in Downing Street had a taste for drama or they had a hell of a job finding a minister willing to get into action on behalf of the government. The last time there was such an absence was the morning after ITV News got hold of a video of Downing Street aides joking about lockdown parties.

As Sunday papers reported six new allegations against Chris Pincher, suspended as a Tory MP last week after he allegedly groped two men, the push was on to find out what the Prime Minister knew before appointing him Deputy Chief Whip in February.

Let’s move on to Ms Coffey and her first date, Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Was the minister aware of the allegations about Mr Pincher before last week? I’m not in “that kind of chat group,” she says.

And the prime minister? “He was unaware of the specific allegations that had been made.”

Ridge jumped on “specific allegations” and unplugged. “Sorry, I really don’t understand that sentence,” she said after another attempt by Ms Coffey to say something without saying anything.

“I understand maybe it’s easier to be able to go into these programs and say, ‘Look, I don’t know,'” Ridge said. “But surely you have to ask to try and find out, that’s the first thing most people would do – when did the Prime Minister find out? – so when I’m asked that question I can give the answer.

Similar was expecting Ms Coffey when she clashed with Sophie Raworth on BBC1’s Sunday Morning show. Now the color was rising on the minister’s face. It was like watching a lobster boil very, very slowly.

Finally, it emerged that she had not told the PM what he knew and when. She had instead relied on “someone from the press office at number 10” to brief her. It would be the same Number 10 press office that has consistently denied that parties were held in Downing Street during the lockdown.

Let’s go. On Times Radio, presenter Carole Walker said: ‘You almost have to feel sorry for a minister…’.

If Downing Street was counting on Ms Coffey and her train wreck talks to be a distraction, the tactic worked, but not for long. Nor will the strategy survive the reality check when the Commons meet today.

Andy Burnham, the Labor mayor of Greater Manchester, was having a much happier time on Sunday morning answering questions about the summer strikes. Should workers demand wage increases above inflation, Raworth asked? Did he support the strikes? Would he go on a picket line?

Yes, yes, and yes were the answers, even though he circled the houses to get there. Why couldn’t Labor leader Keir Starmer be so clear, Raworth asked. Because the government was “playing politics”, replied the mayor, urging the ministers to come to the table, profession by profession.

If Mr Starmer were to step down, as he has promised to do if he is fined for breaking lockdown rules during his campaign in Durham, would Mr Burnham like to replace him?

“Firstly, I can’t because the rules don’t allow it, I’m not a member of the Parliamentary Labor Party. “Secondly, there is no vacancy and I don’t expect there to be one.”

A gentle operator that one, just like the manager of BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show who had to bring down three guests and put them on a precarious stool without the viewer being more aware of it.

Presenter Martin Geissler did his part by holding down a few front pages to distract viewers while the “quarrels” unfolded off-camera.

It would have been seamless, except Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Greens, whose shoulder, alas, came into play.

With the Scottish Parliament now in recess, the TV part of The Sunday Show closes, leaving the radio show to continue its solitude.

Meanwhile, in Westminster, the Commons does not rise until July 21. Downing Street should rejoice.

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