#PMQs – Political Theatre that’s Out of Time

Packed to the rafters for PMQs

I’ll admit with no shame that since setting up this blog I’ve struggled to find the time, energy or the state of mind to write the first proper entry. My stated aim was that this would not be an “angry-man” blog. I want it to be calm, and measured and thoughtful. And that’s difficult to achieve, to say the least, when the events of the day are making you incredibly angry.

And boy have the events of the past couple of weeks made me angry.

So, I’m not going to write about the easing of Lockdown, or political aides breaking lockdown, or the virus and the government’s awful, awful response to it. Instead, I figured that I’d recycle and update a post I wrote for a different blog about Prime Minister’s Questions—pertinent today after watching (well, listening to on the radio) the latest the Johnson/Starmer clash.

Prime Minister’s Questions—or #PMQs as it’s come to be known as on twitter—has long been the weekly showcase set-piece of the British Parliament. The “showpiece event” of the week. It’s the opportunity for MPs to put questions directly to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s opportunity to… well, to show off, I suppose.

Importantly, it pits the Leader of the Opposition against the Prime Minister. The LOTO gets to put five questions to the PM and they are regarded by many as the five most important questions asked by anyone of anyone in any given week.

The media love it and report eagerly on whether the LOTO was able to “land a punch” on the PM or if the PM was able to bat away the questions and show some real leadership. PMQs is usually packed to the rafters—one of the rare occasions the chamber is actually full—and as a result, both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are playing to their own MPs just as much as they are playing to the country as a whole. They both stand at the dispatch box with their respective MPs behind them cheering their every word and shouting down their opponent for all they are worth.

I recently re-watched (well, actually, watched for the first time as an adult would be a better description) the BBC satirical series from the 80s “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” on Britbox and there’s a scene in the final series where Prime Minister Hacker brags about his performance in PMQs in terms of making his own MPs cheer and laugh rather than give good, informative answers to the questions he’s been asked.

And that little scene pretty much sums up the problem with PMQs as I see it—it’s theatre. Political theatre. And nothing more.

But it’s banal and it’s childish. We would not tolerate the kind of behaviour we see in the House of Commons, and particularly at PMQs, at, say a school assembly or an academic debate, so why do we accept it from our elected officials? The rest of the world look at our “Mother of Parliaments” with often undisguised confusion at how a democracy can behave in such an archaic way. Is it any wonder we are so often not taken seriously on the world stage?

Over the years we’ve seen Thatcher v Kinnock. Major v Blair, Blair v whichever leader of the Tories he was making mincemeat of at the time, Brown v Cameron, Cameron v Miliband and, rather less inspiringly, May v Corbyn.

And now we have Johnson v Starmer. But things at the moment are just a little different.

Parliament returned after the Easter break and due to the requirements of Social Distancing to combat COVID-19, the number of MPs allowed into the chamber of House of Commons was strictly limited with other MPs dialling in via video link.

But in a mostly empty chamber “playing to the crowd” simply doesn’t work. During the first two weeks, the highly qualified highly experienced Queen’s Counsel Sir Keir Starmer forensically tore the comparatively poorly qualified failed City Solicitor Dominic Rabb to shreds while Boris Johnson recovered from his serious bout of COVID-19.

Socially Distanced PMQs
Socially Distanced PMQs

And when Prime Minister Johnson stepped back into the Chamber for the first time since his illness, it was even starker how much the ‘old’ format of PMQs is out of date.

For the third week in a row, Starmer was calm and calculated. He built a case like the experienced barrister he is—not so much “landing punches” on the PM, but surgically slicing strips off him.

And what was the Prime Minister’s response? He played to an absent crowd because that’s all he knows how to do. It worked in front of a packed chamber against Jeremy Corbyn, so I’d imagine that Johnson just figured he’d carry on in the same way. Our PM doesn’t do detail, but up against a man who is all about the detail, he didn’t stand a chance. As I said on Twitter later in the day…

Johnson waffled. He blustered. He avoided the questions and it showed. He wasn’t able to toss an insult across the dispatch box like so many PMs have done in the past then sit back and revel in the cheers of his own MPs. He was utterly out of his comfort zone in the relative quiet of the empty chamber. And utterly out of his depth.

And things haven’t improved for him since. Each time Johnson has faced Starmer across the dispatch box, he’s been made to look a fool—unable to answer questions, lacking in his command of detail and generally just not very good. In addition, each week he’s looked and sounded more and more irritable, as if he doesn’t see why he has to go through this humiliating experience of being asked questions every week. Hard questions without easy, crowd-pleasing answers. Who does the Leader of the Opposition think he is subjecting the Prime Minister to scrutiny and trying to hold him to account for his Government’s performance?

This week Johnson sounded (I was listening on the radio rather than watching on TV) particularly churlish. He even had a mini-tantrum moments after rebuking Starmer for his “tone”, which resulted in him banging his fist on the table.

Compared to Starmer’s calm, measure, quiet and serious approach to the event, Johnson’s increasingly unhinged appearances makes him look ridiculous. Particularly in a chamber where, despite the ‘virtual’ attendances ending, there are still strictly controlled numbers allowed in and social distancing at 2m still in place.

This may change once Parliment resumes fully and Johnson has his pack behind him again, but I think our democracy will be poorer for the old format’s return.

The PMQs of the past is out-dated. It’s a theatre show we no longer need. It’s a relic of an adolescent democracy that thinks it’s a world leader but sadly isn’t any longer.

We need a new way of holding the Prime Minister to account on a regular basis. A modern way. A ‘grown-up’ way. And for me, that’s in the Committee format used to question other ministers so well.

Just imagine the PM facing a committee made up of the LOTO, and the leaders of the SNP, the Lib Dems, PC, the Greens, as well as other, selected MPs. We’d get difficult questions all the time, rather than the “look how good we are” questions from Government backbenchers we so often get at PMQs even now in its socially distanced format.

And the committee would demand answers. There’d be no hiding behind the baying mob. No playing to the crowd. It would be the mark of modern grown-up democracy. We have something similar in the Liason Committee, where the PM faces a committee made up of the Chairs of all the other parliamentary committees, but this only happens a couple of times a year though and I think it would be useful to see it more often and made up of a wider range of MPs.

Not that this would help Johnson in any way. After ducking out of facing the Liason Committee several times since becoming PM, he finally faced them recently and just as awful at that as he was at PMQs.

Which is kind of the point, I suppose. There’s no hiding place when facing the Committee. Not like in a regular PMQs. And nor should there be. The Prime Minister isn’t a circus ringleader there merely to entertain the crowd. It’s a serious job—the most serious of jobs—and it should be subject to serious scrutiny.

But my idea of replacing the pantomime of PMQs with something more serious, modern and grown-up will never happen. Why? Because Britain isn’t a serious, modern grown-up democracy. It’s a relic of Empire that’s well past its sell-by date. Just like PMQs.

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