Like it or not, Question Time is Britain’s most popular forum for political debate. Two million viewers regularly tune in, and Thursday evenings on BBC1 is when and where ordinary people are most likely to encounter a secretary of state or shadow cabinet minister. For politicians, it’s a golden opportunity — a huge audience to which they can sell both themselves and their party’s policies.
The choice of guests usually causes an uproar on Twitter — mostly along the lines of ‘why is X appearing again? ‘ and ‘ I’m sick of seeing Y party getting so much airtime’ — but who actually appears most frequently? Digging into to the IMDB’s comprehensive database of Question Time appearances, this is how many times major Tory and Labour figures have appeared since 2004 (NB: I’ve kept equal the numbers from the Tories and Labour, and roughly equal the politicians’ positions too):
You can see that, contrary to what most people think, Nigel Farage isn’t Question Time’s most frequent guest. That honour goes to Ken Clarke, who has appeared 23 times in the last decade. Unlike many of his government colleagues — Michael Gove and George Osborne for example — Clarke has appeared almost as many times in government as in opposition. It’s easy to see why his party want Clarke on air. As a veteran of the Major and Thatcher governments, he’s easily recognisable. He is affable, friendly and persuasive. And, without a portfolio, he doesn’t have to do detail, which allows him to roam across the political terrain. Arguably, he’s the anti-Farage.
The second notable thing is the lack of appearances by Ed Balls. Out of the major Labour politicians in the chart above, only shadow education minister Tristram Hunt and shadow defence minister Vernon Coaker have appeared fewer times — and they’ve only been shadow ministers for only six months.