Posts Tagged ‘PMQs’

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.

So, we had Prime Minister’s Questions today. Or, more formally, “Questions To The Prime Minister”.

I’ve written about PMQs several times before, and even posted a transcript of my livetweeting of “The PMQs that never happened but should have” six weeks or so back.

But, yes, I’m writing about it again, with another take on it: why it may be tinkered with every so often, but why it’ll never be fundamentally changed. Not now.

Quick bit of context, though.

In a parliamentary system, where the executive is formed from the legislature, then the way they’re held to account is two-fold:

The first and certainly more important, though less well known or appreciated, is by the system of select committees. Every department has one attached to it. MPs, usually about a dozen of them are on the committed, usually in proportion to their numbers in the House of Commons. It’s chaired by an MP elected by their peers, again usually in proportion to the numbers in the House. So most of the committees are led by Tories, some by Labour, some even by SNP MPs. They get ministers and civil servants, representing that department, in front of them and subject them to questions, trying to hold them to account for decisions the government has made, the effects of a policy, and sometimes the unexpected consequences of that policy.

Sometimes, rarely, this actually achieves something. A minister torn apart by a select committee doesn’t tend to last very long. And it’s not unknown for a government policy, ripped to shreds by a select committee – either in person or in a written report – to be amended or even repealed.

The Prime Minister, by the way, not representing a department, doesn’t face a departmental select committee… but a committee known as the Liaison Committee, a committee made up of the chairs of all the other select committees.

(However, this is one committee whose sittings tend to be anything but consequential.. PMs tend to regard it as an annoying occupational hazard, and don’t expect anything that happens there to truly matter. They’re rarely incorrect in that. And, to be fair, they wouldn’t get to be Prime Minister if they weren’t used to avoiding questions and/or people trying to hold them to account.)

The other way ministers are held to account is in the Commons itself (or the Lords, but that’s a whole other thing, so let’s just ignore them, eh?) when they face questions from MPs and are supposed to answer, but rarely do.

That’s unfair. They answer questions. It’s just not unknown for the answers to be to entirely different questions, to the questions the minister wished had been asked. And they happen every couple of weeks or so. Treasury Questions, or Environment Questions. Or Foreign Affairs Questions. Sometimes the Secretary of State will answer the questions, sometimes a junior minister with specific responsibility for a policy area.

And the same thing applies to Prime Ministersm in theory.

OK, so Questions to The Prime Minister (ok, I’m going to call them PMQs from now on, since that’s how they’re commonly referred to) take place on a Wednesday.

Way back when, when the UK maintained the polite fiction that a Prime Minister was merely ‘first among equals’ – the ‘prime’ minister, but no more than that – PMQs were a far more leisurely affair.

A question would be asked, and occasionally, the PM would even designate another minister – with responsibility for that area – to answer for them. So the PM would be asked about the government’s recent tax rises, and the Chancellor would answer.

Bbut mostly the Prime Minister would languidly answer the question asked in a way that signalled the mild astonishment that the PM should actually have to explain themselves.

Back then, PMQs took place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for two, fifteen minute, weekly sessions. The Leader of the Opposition got three questions, the leader of the ‘third party’ (for most of the 20th century, that was the Liberal Party/Liberal Democrats.) got one.

In 1997, however, on coming to power, Blair changed the format; it would now be a single session, thirty minutes long, the Leader of the Opposition would get six questions, the leader of the third party, two questions. Again, at this time, it was still the Liberals, or the Liberal Democrats as they’d then become.

By then, of course, PMQs had morphed into something familiar to watchers now.

A clash, a battle, a Q&A (or Q&A-to-something-else, that bit hasn’t much changed), between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Under Speaker John Bercow, that half an hour has stretched out, and it’s usually around 45 minutes now, but it’s been almost an hour on occasion.

That can be split, roughly, as follows:

  • Five minutes of introductory questions (usually, one tory, one labour)
  • Fifteen minutes of Leader of the Opposition questions (what most people think of, when they think of PMQs)
  • Seven or eight minutes of the third party leader’s questions (these days, the SNP)
  • And the remainder with backbencher’s questions, just under half an hour of those

And after all these changes of format, has anything really changed in the past forty years, say?

Not much, no. Oh, the format has changed a bit. Used to be that all questions would be two parters. The first part would be on the order paper, and the MP would just say “Question 6, Mr Speaker”. That question would be something asking the PM to list their engagements for the day.

Since the previous six questions had all been the same, the PM would respond with something like “I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.”

The MP would then stand and ask the question they actually wanted to ask: “does the PM think the latest unemployment numbers show his government is utterly fucking useless?” Or something like that, with less unparliamentary language, at least.

That was pretty much abandoned a few years ago as well. And now, MPs are just listed on the order paper as going to ask a question, without the question itself there. MP gets called, they ask the question they want to ask. (Or in the case of backbench MPs of the same party, the question they’ve been fed by the government: ‘Would the Prime Minister agree that the leader of the opposition smells? or “would the Prime Minister agree that the government is on the right course?”)

Now I’m a heretic: I’m still of the opinion that PMQs should matter; it’s just been a very long time since I’ve thought they do.

I recall Tory leader William Hague, who regularly ‘won’ the clashes when Tony Blair – no novice at PMQs – was PM, commenting that the sessions matter little outside the Houses of Parliament but are important inside; it didn’t matter so much if you weren’t excellent at them – either asking or answering – but if you were utterly crap at them, you were finished.

Well, Jeremy Corbyn put the lie to that some time ago.

He’s much better than he once was; but it took years to get there, and in ‘ye olde days’, his dire performances at PMQs for well over two years would have meant he’d have been replaced.

He’s still there, you note.

But what do they accomplish?

Honestly? Not much

Not much at all.

Corbyn has turned them into five questions you can basically ignore; he regularly lost the clash with Cameron. he came out about evens with May (because both were utterly awful at it) and it’s too early to tell with Johnson though Corbyn did well today. But Corbyn’s. turned his sixth question into a mini-speech, hitting the lines that do well on social media, and the clips are released to the faithful minutes later.

So, if it’s so bloody useless as an event, and it never accomplishes what it’s supposed to, then why don’t we do away with them?

Well, every Leader of the Opposition comes to power as PM having promised to reform them. Cameron pledged to do away with the ‘punch and judy’ style. And he tried… for about three weeks, before he got fed up of trying to be polite, while others took chunks out of him.

But why won’t they at least change to do exactly that: remove the punch and judy stuff?

Two questions there:

Why won’t they ever really change?

What are the excuses they offer for not changing?

The simple answer though is: because no one wants them to. Not enough, anyway.

No, really, no matter what backbench MPs say, and no matter how often ministers and Prime Ministers later say they hate PMQs, it’s still their moment in the spotlight, their moment to squash their foes. And if they didn’t manage to this week, then there’s always next week.

There’s tradition, that word always trotted out when people are desperately searching for a reason not to do something, whether it’s amend PMQs or ban fox hunting, and for the same reason.

And there’s parliamentary inertia; to change something in parliament, without the support of the party leaders, takes forever, is complicated and rarely occurs.

And there’s always the One Question per session, the one serious question asked by a backbench MP, about a disaster, or a constituent in trouble, or a local employer that’s failing… the House falls silent. The MP is heard; the PM stands, slowly and carefully. The tone is serious, the compassion offered is often fake-but-looks-sincere, the House hears the PM in silence.

That’s the ‘cover’; that’s what MPs point at, and protest: ‘See? That’s what PMQs can be. That’s what we can get it to, so it’s always that serious, that important.”

They’re wrong. They don’t even believe it themselves.

And most of them don’t want it to change, because there’s still a small part of them that thinks ‘it could be me asking the questions, the eyes of the House, the eyes of the nation – hey, I never said they’re realistic – on me… hell, it could be me answering them.”

Why won’t it change?

Well, you raise a very interesting point. I’m extremely obliged to you for doing so. And I refer you to the answer I gave some weeks ago.

Next question!
 
 
Something else tomorrow…