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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.

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