It was a question calculated to make the viewers hyperventilate, never mind the subject of the inquisition. When Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight asked the Treasury minister Chloe Smith whether she ever thought she was incompetent, those of us on this side of the screen could only try to catch our breath. Unfortunately for Ms Smith, it was a rhetorical question that demanded answering. We knew the truth: the scene should have been roped off some time earlier, so gruesome had been this car crash of an interview.
I dare say most people would not have heard of Ms Smith, pictured, until the other night, when she was sent into gladiatorial combat with Paxman to explain the Government's decision to scrap the 3p fuel duty rise announced in August. Armed with nothing more than a pleasant manner and a few practised platitudes, Ms Smith's performance came across like a trailer for The Thick of It. As the answers to Paxman's grilling got more vague, her arms moved more wildly, almost assuming a life of their own. You didn't need to be a body-language expert to work out she wasn't waving, but drowning.
Ms Smith, 30, is a beneficiary of the MPs' expenses scandal, winning the Norwich North seat in a by-election after the resignation of Ian Gibson. She became the youngest person in the Government when she was appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I would like to bet that she's a very competent, confident person in what might loosely be called real life, but that's not much to fall back on when Paxman has been let off the leash and hasn't had any red meat for a while.
Of course, she was given a hospital pass by George Osborne's department – a point made with characteristic pomposity, and opportunism, by John Prescott yesterday – but we have a right to expect a minister to have a certain mastery of his or her brief, and old Paxo was perfectly within his rights to give her a going over.
He was as remorseless and dismissive and supercilious to Ms Smith as he was to Michael Howard all those years ago, when he asked the same question 14 times. Nevertheless, what seemed like aggressive journalism in the public interest when a grizzled veteran like Mr Howard was the subject (or victim, more like) felt rather different when a young woman was in the firing line.
The imbalance of power between Paxman and Ms Smith threw off the faint aroma of bullying, but one of the laudable aspects of his style of interviewing is that he is completely gender blind, so perhaps we should be, too. And, judging from the response of the Twitterati, the principal loser from this unfortunate situation will be Mr Osborne, who was likened to an armchair general sending in his young troops as cannon fodder.
On Ms Smith's website yesterday, there was no mention of her appearance; she's more concerned with the shortcomings of our rail system preventing her from getting to the Royal Norfolk Show. There, no doubt, she'll encounter creatures with tough hides and thick skins. And they won't even have heard of Paxman!