PMQs: Outdated or Essential?

14 Feb 2015

One of the very first acts of Tony Blair's government was to modify the constitutional convention of Prime Minister's Questions. Around half an hour every Wednesday is dedicated to asking the PM or their Deputy about their national and international responses that week. However, a seemingly informative but heated way of allowing for political debate has, to some, become outdated and obscure in our modern and politically apathetic society. The question we face now is should it stay, or should it go?


An Outdated Institution


“Order, order!” is the vain cry of the Speaker of the House, week in, week out. Sarah Champion MP described the conduct of the weekly affair as “embarrassingly juvenile,” and the public largely do not watch it – except for the odd snippet on the news every Wednesday evening. I refer, of course, to that (in)famous Parliamentary pantomime: Prime Minister’s Questions.


In theory, it is a very respectable, worth-while event. Westminster is hailed as the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ and the ‘cradle of democracy’. For hundreds of years, representatives have assembled to voice the grievances of their constituencies and to hold the leaders of the day to account; all while Britain has slowly ambled towards the democracy we know and recognise today. And what a farce it has become. Prime Minister’s Questions was designed as the opportunity for even the most obscure Members of Parliament to stand up in the Chamber and ask something of our Chief of Government directly. It was designed to be the time at which the Prime Minister faced a grilling, and the pressure was on to explain his positions and his policies. But today, it is a screaming match and little more. David Cameron and Ed Miliband hurl insults at one another as they take the opportunity to score points for the wittiest one-liner, rather than addressing key issues of immense public concern.


Miliband may demand that Cameron explain himself about hedge fund tax breaks, as he did last week, but he shouts himself hoarse for nothing. The Prime Minister does not entertain with a meaningful response. Instead, he quips about how ‘Bill somebody’ is the Labour Party’s economic policy, rather than a genuine mistake made by the Shadow Chancellor during an interview. Now, to the most obsessive of politicos, this might have been marginally funny. To the ordinary member of the public, it is utterly meaningless and even insulting. I say insulting because our Prime Minister is paid over £140,000 and this is what we pay him for. He thinks he is paid for his pathetic attempts to double up as a comedian every week. But, contrary to his machismo-motivated delusions, he is in fact paid to govern the United Kingdom.


One of the most cringe-worthy elements of Prime Minister’s Questions is the lengths the PM’s team will go to in order to make sure the spectacle is as smooth as possible for ‘their man’. His Parliamentary Private Secretary, Gavin Williamson, sends out e-mails ahead of time with ‘suggested questions’ for Tory MPs to ask. Charles Kennedy observed that it is painfully obvious when an MP has degraded themselves to puppet status because the question they ask is so clearly laden with approved talking points. It is safe to say that any time a Conservative politician asks a question with the phrase “long term economic plan”, it is not because they’ve had the intelligence (or the spine) to think of a more probing question of their own. Cameron himself justifies this by saying, “In politics, you’ve got to try and have a clear message.” I’m sorry, Prime Minister, but I for one to not think Parliamentary time should be so deliberately exploited as an electoral springboard.


As much as it frustrates me – much like the incessant squealing when there are too many children in one room – Prime Minister’s Questions should not be scrapped. I believe it could be put to more worthwhile use if only the partakers, all 650 of them, had more respect for the spectators. At the end of the day, PMQs is likely the only footage many members of the public will see from inside the Commons, but the value of it is somewhat depleted when you cannot even here the rare sensible question and response over the raucous haranguing of the rabble.

MPs are enormously privileged to sit on those green benches. But, every week, without fail, they fail to even sit still.



A Democratic Essential


To paraphrase Labour leader Ed Miliband: well, look, if what you’re asking me is ‘should we get rid of the puerile, male-dominated, shouty carry-on that is Prime Minister’s Questions?’, then I have to say to you, there is no easy answer to that question.


Which is why my colleague Marc Winsland and I are debating the matter. In a joint article, as opposed to in person, so we can’t behave like David Cameron and Ed Miliband and shout at each other while people behind us laugh and make strange pointy gestures at each other. PMQs is something which has come under a lot of scrutiny of late, particularly since Miliband himself floated the idea of a ‘public PMQs’ some months ago, an idea which failed to garner much support.


A lot of political journalists chose last week as the week in which they were going to attack PMQs; an act that was as bizarre as it was hypocritical. The hacks damning PMQs for its childish nature are the same ones who praise Miliband and Cameron for good lines and MPs for posing important questions to the Prime Minister, as opposed to simply using the event as an opportunity to vent. Yet the MPs who do use PMQs an opportunity to vent are not always the ones who render it a pointless façade of bluster, as it has so often been criticised for being.


As voters, we often have what I’d describe as unrealistic expectations of our representatives. We rightly expect MPs to support our interests above their own but when an MP expresses passion on an issue during PMQs, they are all too often criticised for doing so. Yet if an MP gives an interview where they give monosyllabic answers and toe the party line, we criticise them for being ‘robotic’.


Last week, former Conservative MP Louise Mensch poured scorn on the government and on Labour for honouring the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and was praised for her characteristically outspoken stance. In an exchange on Twitter, the Independent on Sunday’s Political Editor Jane Merrick praised Mensch and said that “we need more anger on Westminster” as voters are “turned off” by MPs “sitting on their hands” on high profile issues.


This, for me, is exactly why PMQs, for all its flaws, is something that we should look to preserve. One of the biggest reasons for lack of political engagement, particularly amongst young people, is that they feel distant from their MPs and this theme of a ‘Westminster bubble’.


I do, of course, realise the gigantic irony of arguing that a weekly event that is held within Parliament enables MPs to break out of the Westminster bubble. Yet PMQs afford MPs a way to hold the government to account and a way to express issues that they are passionate about in a way which they cannot do on any other day of the week. People, particularly young people, are angry about politics. They are angry about a lack of representation, of course, but they are angry about issues. MPs are angry too, but too often sit on their hands and don’t speak out for fear of crossing the party whips.

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