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Parliamentary Spotlight:

In Parliamentary Spotlight on August 27, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Prime Minister’s Questions

Prime Minister’s Questions officially began in 1961, set up by Harold Macmillan to be held twice weekly on a Tuesday and a Thursday. It stayed this way until 1997 when it became one of the first of Tony Blair’s parliamentary reforms. The idea of PMQ’s is so that the premier can be scrutinised by all members of the Commons. Which is all very well in theory.

But in practice it is a different story. Now once a week for half an hour, it is becoming extremely tiresome. Critics of Blair often put the reason for change down to Blair wanting to spend as little time in the Commons as he could get away with, but half an hour is much, much too long.

The whole drama of the event vanishes after the two leaders of the opposition have finished their questions. Between their 8 questions, they will normally have asked most of the serious matters on people’s minds, and if not, then these will be asked very shortly afterwards, leaving at least 15 minutes left. The rest is all filler, and not even interesting filler. For the most part it is desperately dull.

From the opposition, there is often either basic repetition of what has been said before, or just a basic question asking whether the Prime Minister has received a letter about one of their concerns and “will you have talks with me about it later?” Occasionally you will get an inflammatory question about some deficient act of government policy, and plenty of noise from both benches to accompany it. Occasionally.

But by far worse is the inevitably cringe-worthy spectacle of watching an MP on the government’s side ask a question. Normally a younger sycophantic backbencher, usually with aspirations to become a minister and told by the whips that this is a good way to get themselves noticed. This patsy question will normally go along the lines of “Congratulations to the Prime Minister on [insert drivel here], but will my right honourable friend do all he can to help the [insert group of people here] in my constituency, who…” As if the Prime Minister is going to turn around to them and say ‘No.’

The above has to be not only the worst part of the process, but it’s not even as clever as the backbenchers might think. Not so very long ago, perhaps two months or so, Gordon Brown was having one of his best PMQ sessions since becoming PM. It was refreshing to see him on top of things for a change. He knocked back all of David Cameron’s questions reasonably well, and thought on his feet well when other Conservatives tried to dig the knife in. He even said something to the tune of  ‘The opposition have no serious questions, they are all on style, and none on policy,’ and no-one laughed at him.

But then it happened. He had just answered an opposition MP’s question and one of his own backbenchers, possibly the notorious Margaret Moran, was called to speak. ‘Would the Prime Minister,’ she began, grinning inanely with all the smarmy qualities of somebody who really has no idea of the damage they are about to cause, ‘like to celebrate with me on Luton Football Club being moved up a division for the next season?’ The opposition had a field day. All of Brown’s accomplishments in that one session vanished and he limped on amongst immense jeering.

Sad as it is, performance at PMQ’s can really matter for the party leaders. Margaret Thatcher would have been thankful that it was not televised when she was in opposition, as she often only asked one question and was never really a match for Wilson or Callaghan. But nowadays, PMQ’s can be said to have contributed to the failed leadership of Iain Duncan Smith and Menzies Campbell.

It is hard to say what should happen to PMQ’s but perhaps it would at least be better reverted back to twice a week. Unfortunately, the new speaker John Bercow seems enthusiastic to take in as many backbenchers’ questions as possible. In reality, this I feel takes away from any sense of scrutiny by PMQ’s and instead merely turns it into a joke.

  1. A good blog, good bit of history at the beginning, and I sympathise with many of your views here.

    However, I disagree that PMQs should be reverted back to two sessions a week.

    Firstly, PMQs is not meant to be a drama performance in the first place (contrary to how the PM and opposition leader act). I think its good at points that it is so ‘dull’ – politics shouldn’t be exciting, it should be focused on important issues, ‘dull’ though it might be. 30-minute sessions are perfect to get through minor and major issues that MPs have the right to bring up.

    Secondly, it’s meant to be a serious piece of scrutiny for the Prime Minister, and it has shown to be very effective in the hands of backbenchers. I’m reminded of a Liberal Democrat MP, Simon Hughes, bringing up the issue of this year’s Parliamentary session being the shortest in over 30 years – it caused serious controversy. There would not be enough of a chance for other MPs to ask questions in a split session.

    Thirdly, PMQs is heavily reported on by the media, and thus excellent for accountability and transparency. Here is the Prime Minister, on his own, speaking directly to representatives of the people in the UK, and you get to read and listen to every single word of it. Yes, I know the PM knows the questions beforehand. Yes, its mostly scripted. But somehow, it makes politics real, seeing debate in action, and having it in shorter sessions will takeaway from that (literally in, then out).

    If you really want some sort of action-packed knockout between Cameron and Brown, go along with Mandelson’s ‘TV Debates’. But if you want to see the serious work of Parliament without watching BBC Parliament 24/7, just tune in to PMQs every week – you might be suprised.

    • Thank you for the comment. I doubt I would mind so much myself about the whole ritual being dull if it didn’t try so hard not to be. I think it is a sad effect of 24/7 media that it has become this way. I agree that at it’s best, it is a powerful tool for scrutiny, but it often falls short of the mark.

      I think that the governing party’s backbenchers should also be encouraged to scrutinise as well. I can only really think of one Labour MP doing this in the last six months, and that is Chris Mullin who asked about the Trident programme. Mullin is standing down at the next general election. Compare that with Dennis Skinner asking Gordon Brown if he disagrees about Conservative policy, this type of question being much more common from Labour MP’s. It’s not that this doesn’t have it’s place, but it’s place is not PMQ’s.

  2. Someone made the comment on Booktalk (parliament channel programme, I think) that PMQs were far less interesting in the 24 hour media age, because politicians knew exactly what shape and size a soundbite had to be to be reported properly by the media, and thus the opposition/government debates were far, far more predictable. That’s probably why the Baby P debate caused as much shock as it did, because it dashed the predictions of the media as to what to expect and report.

    I think that the two 15 minute sessions might work a little in terms of diluting the stranglehold media expectations places on PMQs, as it wouldn’t all hinge on the one event during the week, and the media would be less inclined to place the same attention twice within a week. It might have a perverse effect of ensuring less time for backbenchers to ask the “boring” questions Stephen references, and there could be other issues — what about the Lib Dems? It would hardly be fair to deny them the extra question, but on the other hand, allowing them two would mean that the Conservatives’ questions were halved, whilst the Lib Dems’ amount remained the same.

    It’s an interesting issue, though one I’ve always seen previously as one of those “6 in one hand, half a dozen in the other” types. Thought perhaps with an approach like Bercow’s of trying to get questions asked and answered more concisely, a revert to the 15 minute formula possibly might not have so many issues. I’m sceptical as to how much Bercow can reform HoC process, however.

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