If I were Prime Minister, I would abolish Prime Minister’s Questions. Not because I’d be looking for an easy ride, you understand. As a non-Etonian and a woman who had somehow got her tediously high-profile high heels up to the top of the tree, I doubt I’d know the meaning of easy ride.
I’d abolish Prime Minister’s Questions because it is a waste of a time. And because it is, in one noisy, impenetrable barracking room, everything that is wrong with UK politics. Or rather it is everything that much of the electorate perceive to be wrong with UK politics – and that matters just as much, with 70 days to go until polling.
In principle, PMQs are a fine showcase of vigorous democracy. They are a chance to put the leader on the spot, an irreverent free-for-all where any backbencher, with the luck of the draw and a dynamic line in bobbing up and down in the Speaker’s eyeline, might get the chance to air a subject that matters to them, and to their constituency. In practice, it has become, as Nick Clegg said last month, a farce. At its worst, it can be puerile, misogynistic and repellent to the general public.
It is not the jokes that jar particularly – a well-turned barb can deflate a bad idea, or piece of waffle, faster than any self-righteous speech. It’s all of the rest of it, the stuff I imagine its regulars describe as “a bit of fun” - the jeering and the catcalling, the warghs and the woos, the “hear-hear”s and the “calm down dear”s, for goodness’ sake, that soundtrack anyone trying to make a point. It’s the silliness that really irritates, the sense that the chamber is reliably packed out for this one half-hour a week because it offers grown, elected, individuals the chance to grunt, roar and say yah-boo to one another, on tax-payers’ time. It’s like watching a university debate where everyone is hyped up on too much free Haribo, cheap wine and the sound of their own voices. Performance, not policy rules – he who has the best jibes, not the right answers, wins.
There are more important issues for a Prime Minister to tackle, of course. The dangerous whittling of NHS budgets, mega-corporations shirking tax and the long-term implications of tuition fees require urgent attention in the House. And where might they get this attention? Somewhere amid a cacophony of brays and boos on a Wednesday afternoon, if they’re lucky.
I’d like to think that if I were PM, I’d have no truck with the pageantry and pomp of Parliament, but then I watched Inside the Commons. Michael Cockerell’s superlative four-part BBC documentary focussed on the entrenched traditions of Westminster and showed up how baffling they are to most MPs, how much precious time is wasted on raffles for questions, handwritten Norman French and filibustering. That anything ever gets debated at all is a miracle.
PMQs date back to the 1880s but became a permanent fixture in 1961. Tony Blair made them into a weekly, rather than twice-weekly event, in 1997 and allowed the Liberal Democrats to ask questions; but since 2010, their leader has not been permitted to participate. It is not an event that caters to modern coalition politics. So what now? Should the public be allowed to ask questions, as Ed Miliband suggests? No, that is what MPs are elected for in the first place, and Question Time is bad enough.
But for those MPs who came into politics to make a difference, only to find themselves continually butting up against practices that have not changed in decades, it must be frustrating indeed. It is certainly maddening to watch. And it is time to find another, more efficient, way to hold the Prime Minster to account.
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