“I’m calling it, this is the worst PMQs ever.”
So tweeted The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn yesterday after yet another tedious trading of NHS statistics from Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May. One needn’t necessarily agree with his conclusion about that particular exchange to observe that the weekly parliamentary joust has gone downhill of late.
The quality of the session also seems to be in inverse proportion to its length, with John Bercow straining the patience of even the most hardened politics nerds by letting things go on for 45 minutes or more.
There’s no doubt that PMQs is less significant now than it has been in the past. As Matt Singh pointed out on CapX earlier this week, only 1 per cent of the British public actually watch it – and even those who do will have forgotten most of the exchanges within days, if not hours.
While pundits pore meticulously over who has “won” a particular week’s exchanges, it’s probably better to think of PMQs as a barometer, rather than a game-changer in itself. If the prime minister is getting beaten up week in, week out, that’s probably because their government is in disarray – no amount of clever gags or rhetorical thrusts is going to get over that basic fact.
Theresa May’s experience is instructive here. In her first outing, with Labour lagging way behind in the polls, she cut a confident, assured figure. Fast-forward to now and she seems to struggle to even deliver her prepared lines well, let alone extemporise any searing put-downs. Even very good or bad PMQs performances are not going to change the political weather on their own. William Hague’s excellent parliamentary performances got him nowhere, while Corbyn’s ineptitude was no barrier to a surprisingly good election performance.
Given how bad it’s been of late, it might seem a strange time for the release of a new book about PMQs. That’s no slight on Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, two former Labour advisers whose Punch and Judy Politics lifts the lid on what it’s really like to prepare for the big set-piece.
It’s a zippy, insightful read, helped immeasurably by contributions from the likes of David Cameron, Tony Blair, William Hague and Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader with whom both Hamilton and Hazarika worked during the coalition years.
Having sat through almost every PMQs since 2010, I was firmly in the sceptics camp before reading the book – hearing thousands of “would the Prime Minister agree that she’s awesome?” pat questions and braying nonsense from the back benches will do that to even the most cheerful of souls.
But Hamilton and Hazarika make a good case for the enduring importance of PMQs in keeping the Government (relatively) honest. In that sense, the long hours of preparation each week are as much about drilling down into policy difficulties as they are coming up with sizzling one-liners.
As David Cameron points out: “It puts the prime minister on the spot to the public, but it also puts the government on the spot to the prime minister — needing to know issues right across every department before coming to the House at 12 o’clock on a Wednesday is an important mechanism of accountability.”
If a policy cannot survive intense scrutiny from MPs and the leader of the opposition, it’s a powerful incentive for ministers to go away and look at it again. The same is true for the leader of the opposition if his lines of attack come apart under close inspection.
If PMQs seems a bit insipid at the moment, that’s partly because Jeremy Corbyn more or less refuses to ask questions about the main issue of the day, Brexit, because his own party is arguably even more divided than on it than the Government. Another key change in the last few years has been Corbyn’s team turning the chamber “from a boxing ring to a pulpit” by delivering extended rants that can then be shared on social media. In that sense the Commons has become just another place for Corbyn to stand up and say the same stuff he says all the time (tl:dr, “yay the public sector”).
There have been a few suggestions for reform. In 2014 Ed Miliband suggested a “Public Question Time” where members of the public put their questions to the party leaders.
While that has superficial appeal, it certainly would not do as a replacement for PMQs. The main problem with Miliband’s idea is that the public can’t possibly be expected to have the same level of policy knowledge as MPs, nor be as skilled at crafting a question to put the Prime Minister on her toes.
So what changes might make PMQs a bit more palatable? Here are a few ways to make it less of a turn-off for the public:
- Rule out questions of the “would the Prime Minister agree with me” and “would the PM like to visit my constituency” variety.
- Get tougher on the most boorish of MPs – Bercow often threatens to send MPs out of the chamber but very rarely actually does so. A few exemplary expulsions might improve the tone of proceedings.
- Put a word limit on questions to stop Corbyn and others using their questions to make speeches.
- Cut off the PM when she goes wildly off topic. This is something Bercow has done in the past and would probably improve the quality of the exchanges.
One might object to each of these changes on the grounds that they hand too much power to the Speaker, but none of them are a radical departure from the powers he already has. Equally a Speaker who is overly partisan would face the risk of getting booted out by unhappy MPs.
Probably the best thing that could happen to improve the quality of PMQs though is not an institutional reform, but simply a change of personnel.
One of the strengths of Punch and Judy Politics is to remind us that it wasn’t always this tedious – previous battles between Thatcher and Kinnock, Major and Blair and even Cameron and Miliband all provided both entertainment and a proper argument over policy.
So those of us who still watch PMQs should take heart – once we eventually get shot of May and Corbyn, we might have something worth watching again.