Jeremy Paxman, 29th May 2017

“When did you realise you had got it wrong on the biggest question of our times in politics?”

This was the first question posed by Jeremy Paxman, broadcaster and journalist, to Theresa May during the Sky/Channel 4 debate “The Battle for Number 10”.  Interviewers have at hand a number of questions they can pose to a politician during an interview but the first questions holds special place and can often catch out the interviewee if they are not prepared. All questions are uttered in the context of “common ground” which helps the politician to interpret the meaning of the question. However at the start of the interview, common ground has not been fully established because nothing has been said between the interlocutors.

Common Ground: “mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual assumptions” (Clark & Brennan, 1991)

The question above, posed by Paxman as the first question in a 15 minute grilling was particularly intriguing and cunning in its design on two fronts. First, the question contains a cataphoric reference to “the biggest question of our time”. Cataphoric means that it refers forward, rather than back, to an as yet unestablished referent. For Theresa May, this presents a challenge because she is pressed to guess what is the biggest question of our time before it has been named: security, social care, Brexit? All of these were potential targets of the referent since they were headline topics in the media at the time. The risk for May was that she might guess wrong which could lead to the suggestion that she is out of touch.

The second cunning aspect of this question is the presupposition behind it: “When did you realise you had got it wrong …”. Presupposition is the idea that whenever we assert something, there are always implied messages which accompany this utterance. In this case, the presupposition is that ‘Theresa May has got it wrong’. This is clearly  a face-threatening implication for politicians who generally try to be seen not making mistakes. (Try asking your best friend the question: “When did you stop beating your spouse?”)


The combination of cataphoric reference and presupposition packed into the first question in an interview is particularly toxic due in part to the fact that common ground has not been established. Here is how May (TM) handled it in the first few seconds after its delivery:

01 JP: Theresa May (.)
02     when did you realise
03     that you’d got the wrong answer (.)
04     to the biggest question of our times in politics
05        (2.2) ((May coughs & smiles))
06 TM: well I’m tempted to ask you Jeremy what you (.) think
07     d’you mean (.) ((hand gesture))
08     you’re talking about Brexit?
09 JP: (0.3) well of course ((dismissive facial expression))
10 TM: right
11        (0.8) ((some laughter from audience))
12     well there are lots of
13     there are lots of challenges
14     in our politics at the moment (.)
15     there are lots of challenges
16     that the government face (.)

Audio: External link to clip

Youtube: @16m39s

The 2.2 second pause (line 04) after the question as May plans a response is revealing. May coughs and smiles suggesting that she is struggling to identify what Paxman means by the “the biggest question”. In line 06 she starts a request for clarification but then in 08 hazards a guess at “Brexit”. Paxman in 09 confirms this but with a dismissive facial gesture which further threatens the prime Minister’s face by suggesting that the referent was obvious. May acknowledges this in 10 but laughter in line 11 from some members of the audience puts further pressure on her and reinforces the idea that she should have known what Paxman was talking about. As the discourse unfolds it quickly becomes clear that Paxman is asking about May’s support for “remain” in the Brexit referendum despite the outcome being a vote for “leave”.

The construction of this conflictual question from Paxman and its positioning at the start of the interview where common ground is at its weakest gave Theresa May a tricky opening few seconds to her interview. She quickly recovered and was widely credited as having performed well in front of a hostile, adversarial interviewer.

Tony Blair

Paxman’s question reminds me of another memorable opening question in 2005 when he interviewed the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the run up to the election

JP: Tony Blair. Prime Minister,
    is there anything you would like to apologise for?

Again this is a conflictual question which attacks the face of the politician from both sides. Being situated at the start of the interview leaves the interviewee with little room to equivocate. An affirmative answer may suggest weakness in the PM; a negative may suggest arrogance.

Channel 4 /Sky – “The Battle for Number 10”, 29th May 2017

Clark, HH. & Brennan, SE. (1991) Grounding in communication. In Lauren Resnick, Levine B., M. John, Stephanie Teasley & D. (eds.), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. American Psychological Association. pp. 13–1991 (1991)