Brown: Hostile Question Time turns off voters
Monday 21 January 2008
After just 14 appearances at Prime Minister's Question Time, Gordon Brown has expressed his growing disillusionment at what he considers the poor quality of the weekly battle of wills across the despatch box.
Mr Brown fears the 30-minute sessions have become so noisy and bad-tempered that the public will be increasingly repelled.
Although he has made it clear he has no plans to change the event, the Prime Minister has told colleagues that he believes the Commons exchanges are now of little use in discussing the issues of the day.
Prime ministers since Harold Macmillan have submitted themselves to questioning each week. Their appearances rapidly developed into the most important regular event in the Commons calendar and even became cult viewing in the United States.
But although he made his reputation with his fearsome debating skills as shadow Chancellor and then Chancellor, Mr Brown has privately admitted "nothing prepares you" for the ferocity of a packed chamber in full cry.
One friend said: "He believes it is the worst it has ever been. It has got worse in the past two years. You don't realise how much noise there is."
Opposition critics are likely to attribute the Prime Minister's disillusionment to his own insecurities at the despatch box.
He has received mixed reviews for his early performances. He was mauled by David Cameron at his first appearance after his decision not to call an early general election. He also endured torrid outings defending the data discs fiasco and the Government's handling of Northern Rock's collapse.
In response he has mocked the Tory leader for deploying "pre-rehearsed soundbites" and ridiculed opposition health policies.
Mr Brown warned that the rowdiness could soon alienate the viewing public. He has predicted: "They will grow tired of it."
He has complained to aides that the Tories have a new tactic of trying to howl him down during his final reply to Mr Cameron and acknowledged that Sir Menzies Campell's poor performances were significant in his downfall as Liberal Democrat leader.
Mr Brown is adamant he will not change the current format. In private, however, he has contrasted the heat of the Commons chamber with the more sober but penetrating approach of members of the public.
He was impressed by the calibre of debate at the Hay and Cheltenham festivals, where he has spoken to audiences of up to 2,000. He has also addressed several "citizen's juries".
The half-hour Wednesday sessions, introduced by Mr Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, replaced two 15-minute sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Critics say that such unseemly shouting matches are virtually unknown elsewhere.
PMQs began in its present form on 18 July 1961, but in its early days prime ministers were routinely able to deflect more difficult questions to their ministers. Today's gladiatorial clashes owe their origins to Baroness Thatcher, who came to use the event to demonstrate her dominance of British politics.
Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, has to regularly intervene to maintain order and is forced to cut off party leaders in full flow.
The Tory MP John Whittingdale, who helped to prepare Margaret Thatcher for her appearances, has bemoaned the deterioration of PMQs into "theatre". He said: "It's more about who can tell the best jokes. Margaret Thatcher wasn't particularly good at a quick witty remark, but her huge knowledge and command of every issue enabled her to know more than the person asking the question."
Six months in the bearpit – and how the PM has fared (marks out of 10)
* 4 July: Gordon Brown makes a halting debut, telling David Cameron he had "only been the job five days". Slow start. (4/10)
* 11 July: The new PM is more confident as Sir Menzies Campbell's troubles deflect attention from him. (5/10)
* 18 July: Brown announces surprise rethink on cannabis classification. Wrong-foots Cameron. (7/10)
* 25 July: Basks in Tories' poor showing in two by-elections. Exploits opposition misfortune. (8/10)
* 10 October: Mauled over his dithering over a general election. His darkest hour. (2/10)
* 17 October: Ridicules Tory health policy and attacks Cameron's "pre-rehearsed soundbites". Eases Labour jitters. (6/10)
* 14 November: On the back foot over the disclosure that thousands of illegal immigrants got security industry jobs. Bogged down on a sticky wicket. (5/10)
* 21 November: The PM has to apologise for the missing data disc fiasco. Another difficult half-hour. (4/10)
* 28 November: Acting Lib Dem leader Vince Cable says he has turned from "Stalin to Mr Bean" in weeks. The jibe looks like sticking. (3/10)
* 5 December: Cameron likens Brown to missing canoeist John Darwin, claiming he wants to forget his years as Chancellor. Troubles continue. (4/10)
* 12 December: Mocks the Lib Dems' propensity for changing leaders. Cable fires back: "Given his own position he might not be wise to speculate about leadership elections." Not a Christmas cracker from Brown. (5/10)
* 16 January: Exploits opposition uncertainty over Northern Rock. Points win over Cameron. (6/10)
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