HOW CAN WE REFORM PMQs? BY GETTING RID OF IT ALTOGETHER
The Speaker of House, John Bercow, has recently complained about the raucous and boisterous nature of the Commons during PMQs (Prime Ministers Question Time). He has said that it is too loud and bellicose and ‘testerone fuelled’; with an abundance of yobbery and ‘public school twittishness’ – that puts off women, and indeed a great mass of the public. That is undoubtedly true – especially the point about it being deeply unappreciated by the watching and the paying public. But I’m afraid that that is the nature of the beast; and it is unlikely to change in the future. Indeed it is almost predesigned, like the format of some noisy celebrity TV show, to produce the same dismal and unimpressive results we see on an all too regular basis.
There is no great antiquity about PMQs. Though it does seem to have been around for ever. It is indeed a quite recent edition, relatively speaking, to parliamentary procedures. Some of our greatest political and parliamentary figures – Lloyd George, Churchill and Attlee – were able to exercise power without the additional complication of this dubious weekly ritual.
It was introduced to parliament some sixty years ago, by Harold Macmillan. (Though despite his laid back patrician/Edwardian demeanour, he was said to be physically sick, through stress and tension, prior to each appearance at PMQs). Macmillan was a smart, savvy politician, who got it right on many things. But this wasn’t one of his greatest innovations.
It is the open ended and rather formless nature of PMQs that makes it so useless, and helps to turn it into a ridiculous weekly pantomime that puts off voters in their droves. As Tony Benn once said, PMQs has more planted questions than Gardeners Question Time on the radio. Snide, partisan questions are routinely asked – there are empty party slogans and facile rhetorical flourishes, by the bucketful – and the sessions are often accompanied by jibes, taunts, insults, hoots, whistles, jeers, and finger jabbing – as politicians try to trip each other up, or make cheap partisan points, of little or no relevance to the wider public. There may be some honourable exceptions to the rule; but they are the minority. PMQs are primarily for Westminster insiders. They don’t seem to resonate beyond the Chamber. And on the rare occasions that they do it is usually to the accompaniment of negative emotions. Indeed at times during PMQs, the House often resembles a sour, bad tempered football stadium, during some heated derby match. This weekly ritual, which generates more heat than light and produces more noise than information, might appeal to and even excite the tribal party loyalists, on message ideologues, political trainspotters and anoraks, parliamentary sketch writers, and other denizens of the Westminster bubble, but it all too frequently wafts by the watching public like a dissolving mist. Indeed it must seem at times to have about as much relevance to daily life as the obscurantist war dance of some primitive tribe.
Some apologists for this weekly ritual say that it is necessary, so that Prime Ministers can become accountable to the House, and through that, to the wider public. But Prime Ministers, and other politicians, can communicate with the electorate and the wider public, through a multiplicity of means; through speeches, interviews, press conferences, newspaper articles – and even through means such as Twitter and Facebook. And of course on the floor of the House, in debates on key issues and topics that regularly arise. We live after all in a media age of rolling, one might say unremitting, round the clock news coverage. If anything we see too much of leaders and politicians, these days; and they seem to be ubiquitous, and want to comment on anything and everything, including about soap operas and court cases. Indeed during the recent flood crisis politicians seemed to be falling over each other to be seen in photo calls in the affected areas, even if it probably got in the way of emergency and rescue workers.
It is what leaders and governments do and achieve, for good or ill, that is of account, and that will be remembered by the public; not how premiers and other politicians perform at PMQs. That is just part of the theatre and vaudeville of power, not its substance.
The only way to reform PMQs is to get rid of it altogether. I believe that that in itself, without any other positive initiative to add to it, would raise the standing and status of politicians. Though once some ritual like this is established, it is hard to get rid of it, even if it is of little use or purpose.