What most folk would like to do to parliamentary democracy
David Cameron stands up to the dispatch box. He starts to speak.
“This morning the Prime Minister said that a general election would cause chaos. What on earth did he mean?”
The Tory benches jeer.
“W-what would cause chaos,” Gordon Brown says, “is if a Conservative government were elected and cause public spending cuts…”
He is drowned out by Labour cheers.
“So there we have it,” Mr Cameron smiles, “the first admission that he thinks he is going to lose.”
The noise when you are watching Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is terrific. I once watched it from the House of Commons, and I can tell you, it is much louder in the Chamber. It is a noise which comes from the guts of 200-odd mainly privately-educated grown men. It is staggering. It reminds me of the times in Ardingly when a dining room-full of schoolboys would tacitly decide to sing Happy Birthday for no apparent reason other than to panic the junior member of staff on duty. As he or she marched up to find the ringleader, the singing would mysteriously stop. Relieved, he or she would walk away. A nod would be exchanged. You would catch someone’s glance, a glimmer of mischief in each eye. The singing would start over again.
The same juvenile impulse is at play in the Commons. It is juvenile. And yet, that urge to jeer, collectively, as one, gives such a rush. It makes you break away from any Latinate sophistication you once had, and makes you feel truly Anglo-Saxon: as if you are part of some wode-daubed tribe, or a blind-drunk football crowd, or a mud-soaked army about to whop the French. “HEEEEEEEAR!!!” What else can you do if Gordon Brown says he has saved the world? What other alternative is there when Betty Boothroyd tells a Lib Dem to “spit it out”?
PMQs is childish; it is witty; it is riotous fun; it is a fantastically bizarre thing to have as a national institution. That is why I love it.
Others disagree. Tabloid historian Dominic Sandbrook questions whether PMQs is fit-for-purpose in this great documentary marking 50 years of PMQs. The current Speaker, John Bercow, thinks the public hates the noisy futility of it all. I suspect the indifferent British public does get irritated by it. As they are hit by gas bills, petty crime and sluggish growth, they see their politicians behaving like a bunch of school kids. They must think: one, it is a waste of time, and two, it makes politics a question of personalities, not of policies. Both these criticisms are misplaced.
Is it a waste of time? Tony Blair spent the night before and morning preparing for PMQs at 12.00. Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings are great chunks of time to be taken up by a Prime Minister. The PM could be building relations with the French President or fine-tuning education policy. Instead, he takes time out of his job for what is essentially half an hour’s mud-slinging. Moreover, if one is a skilled politician, it is easy to give non-answers to non-questions. Just learn some facts, fit in some gags, prescript your responses: job done. As Blair himself admits, it is “a myth that it’s a great way of holding the prime minister to account. […] In truth, the whole thing is a giant joust.”
Giant joust or not, there is still a function to it. First, it ensures the leader of our country is on top of unemployment figures, health policy and so forth, rather than jetting off chatting to foreign dignitaries. It is important the PM is responsive to what is happening in this country. Second, parliamentary criticism puts pressure on the prime minister to act. Think of the News of the World scandal this year. Knowing Miliband and the rest of the Commons would savage the prime minister if he did nothing, David Cameron was pressured to launch an inquiry and urge Murdoch to drop the BSkyB bid. Far better it is for the executive to be held account by the legislature, rather than be outside of it, as all American Presidents are. Obama is held to account only by the unelected media, not elected politicians. PMQs restores that link between leader and parliament by commanding the PM to be there at least once a week.
What of the idea that it thrusts personality centre-stage? It makes virtues of stagecraft, egotism and dogmatism, and vices of modesty and uncertainty, does it not? That may be true, but that’s politics. As much as we would prefer a wise leader to one that only appears wise, politics will always favour the latter. It has always been that way. Disraeli, Lloyd George, Wilson, Blair: actors, the lot of them. What is Parliament but a theatre? And the greatest show of all is PMQs.
The root of the dissatisfaction, I fear, is merely the modern age’s contempt for politicians. Removing PMQs would not make us respect our politicians any more. They would still be making a mess of the economy, launching illegal wars and avoiding the real problems of our society, as they always have done. Removing PMQs would just make politics more boring, like Germany’s. Everyone would say Ja or Nein, and not jeer or heckle, but just disagree politely, and – what is worse – politicians would be just as awful. Far better for us to have the theatre. Far better for us to have PMQs.