2020 plus 08: Three PMQs items of interest

Posted: 8 January 2020 in 2020 plus, politics
Tags: , , ,

Prime Minister’s Questions. I’ve written on them before, so no need to go into the whole history of them, their basic usual pantomime level of Punch and Judy politics, but…

But there were three items of interest in today’s session that I think are worthy of commenting upon, or at least noting that they occured.

Because, to me at least, they were genuinely interesting, and two of them at least were – again, to me – unexpected:

Let’s get the expected one out of the way; Jeremy Corbyn looked tired. For once the subject matter of his questions was in his area of preference: foreign affairs. But where I might have in the past expected fire and brimstone from him on it, it just wasn’t there. As I say, not a huge surprise given the election result, and the past three weeks.

(Though the lack of passion and fiery rhetoric just might have been to do with the next ‘interesting thing’…)

But it was painfully obvious that he knows he’s on his way out. He seemed… less, somehow. Which didn’t exactly hurt Johnson’s ability to blather his way out of pretty much anything Corbyn asked.

But since Corbyn is on his way out, a comment or two about his performance in general in Prime Minister’s Questions. I make, and indeed have made, no secret of the fact that I think Corbyn is pretty useless at PMQs.

Now, I hasten to add, that’s entirely unrelated to what I think of him politically, or as a person. I mean, there are plenty of politicians I hugely disagree with but who I’ll quite happily acknowledge their skill in the House of Commons; when they’re at the dispatch box, asking or answering questions.

There’s very little I agree with Michael Gove about, say, but he is pretty good in the chamber, while maintaining a… flexible and malleable attitude with accuracy.

I quite liked Paddy Ashdown but – in part because the House was rarely kind to him when he was on his feet – he was never someone who commanded the attention of the House when he asked questions as Lib Dem leader.

And then there’s John McDonnell.

When Corbyn appointed McDonnell Shadow Chancellor, neither Corbyn nor he had ever been on the front bench, asking questions on behalf of the opposition or answering them on behalf of the government.

Both were – I think it’s fair to say – utterly, unreservedly useless.

Difference between them soon became obvious though. Both were, they must have been, told by people around them ‘you’re fucking useless; my gods, that was embarrassing.you really need to step up your game‘.

That difference became strikingly obvious, though, when McDonnell clearly listened, practiced – I’m genuinely curious who trained him, I’ll admit – and… upped his game. In well under a year, he’d gone from cringingly embarrassing to not that bad at all; six months later he was getting quite good. Six months after that he was very good.

He’s now one of the best Labour has at commanding the attention of the House, asking questions, and making hard, very hard indeed, speeches.

Whereas Corbyn? well, Corbyn is better than he once was. The ‘I’ve had an email from a Miss Trellis of North Wales’ idea was a clever one but Corbyn being Corbyn overdid it to the point of absurdity. He eventually found his way to the apparently entirely foreign to him concept of… asking a follow up question, and even later seemed to almost stumble over the essential Leader of the Opposition skill of

  • asking the PM a question you already know the answer to
  • Getting a non-answer from the PM, then
  • starting the next question with ‘The PM didn’t answer my question; the answer in fact is… [embarrassing answer for the government]’; now let me ask him…’
  • And then doing it again.

However, he’s been Leader of the Opposition for four and a half years and it’s only the past two, I’d say, where he wasn’t flat out lousy at PMQs. And it’s fortunate indeed for him that he faced Theresa May for most of it; anyone else and he’d have been crushed every bloody session.

(One thing May and Corbyn shared, and it’s an odd thing for an experienced politician, of any stripe: they’re both abysmal at reading out scripted gags. Both can be, rarely but it happened, pretty good at ad libs, even if they’d been prepared ages ago and the opportunity to use it just now occurred. But scripted jokes? No, both terrible at delivering them. I don’t however wholly blame them; their speech writers should have written gags that at least sounded like their bosses’ words; they never bloody did.)
 


 
Second point of interest: it looks as if the days of 45 minute PMQs sessions are gone. Speaker John Bercow slowly but surely allowed the length of PMQs to extend until they rarely finished before about 12:45pm and occasionally ran even longer.

Back in the day, by which I mean way, way back in the 1990s, the format was that a backbencher would open the session by asking the PM for their engagements for the day. The PM would answer with something like

“Mr Speaker, This morning I had several meetings with colleagues and others. Later today, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings.”

The backbencher then asked another question, the important¹ question they’d always intended to ask.

Other MPs would follow the same format of questions. They’d first ask for the engagements, the PM would say “I refer the hon member to the reply I gave some moments ago”, then the MP would ask their proper question as what was known as a ‘supplementary question’. The idea was to prevent the PM knowing what was coming.

This all changed in the 1990s, when such ‘closed questions’ were for the most part abolished. They still occasionally happen, but only once in a blue moon. Now, an MP puts their name on the order paper without the question, to preserve the ‘the PM doesn’t know what’s coming.’

Bercow tended to allow two backbencher’s questions – one from Labour, one from the Tories – before calling the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition to ask his six questions.

So in recent years, it tended to go:
 

  1. a couple of backbenchers’ questions, then
  1. Leader of the Opposition/Prime Minister, 6 questions, anything up to 15 – 20 minutes… long questions, long answers, then
  1. 3rd party leader/Prime Minister, 2 questions, 7 or 8 minutes, then
  1. Backbenchers’ questions, 20 or 25 minutes…

 
Not under Speaker Hoyle. Looks like we’re back to ‘the old days’ at least about timings.

Today’s had:
 

  1. single backbencher’s questions, then
  1. Leader of the Opposition/Prime Minister, 6 questions, 10 minutes… short questions, short answers, then
  1. 3rd party leader/Prime Minister, 2 questions, 5 minutes, then
  1. Backbenchers’ questions, 15 minutes…

 
Done and dusted in 31 minutes.

It’ll be very interesting to see if this continues and whether we’re really back to half hour #PMQ sessions all the time or whether – as with Bercow – it… stretches. I suspect the former, with rare examples of the latter. But we’ll see.


 
Third point of interest: the very final question in the session.

Karl Turner, a Labour MP, asked the following question:

I’d recommend you watch it to get the full impact.

In case you haven’t time, Turner asked about a constituent – someone serving life – who’d saved lives on London Bridge by tackling a knife-wielding terrorist risking his own life to do so, and asking the PM to pay tribute to his constituent’s bravery.

I have no idea what reply he was expecting from Johnson, but the Prime Minister’s professed admiration for the man’s bravery and hope that it be recognised in due course was probably² more than Turner expected.
 
 
Something else, tomorrow.


¹ I say ‘important’; I jest. There are and were so many planted questions of the ‘does the PM agree he’s just lovely?’ that the important questions are sadly the rarity

² It’s more than possible that the PM got a heads-up that the question was coming and that Turner had a pretty good idea what the response would be.

Comments
  1. In Canada, we call it “Question Period” and there are some different rituals and traditions surrounding it, of course. Same general purposes behind it.

    That was an Interesting response to Mr. Turner’s question, I agree. I look forward to whatever follow-ups result from it.

    • Well, most parliamentary based systems, where the executive is formed from the legislature, have a similar system. In the Scottish Parliament, it’s called First Minister’s Questions.

      And of course, there are departmental questions in the House of Commons – where the Sec of State for the relevant department answers the questions – every day.

      But yeah, each have their own traditions and rituals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s