Some followers of politics enjoy the shouting and sloganising of Prime Minister’s Questions. The heated contention energises the partisan, including many MPs themselves. The Speaker of the House of Commons is right, however, to point out that most voters dislike what he describes as “yobbery and twittishness” and that this is a problem for our democracy.
John Bercow has written to the party leaders, as The Independent reported yesterday, to ask what they think is best be done to remedy the situation. His approach is a sensible one, not least because it is not immediately obvious what structural changes can be made. Over-hasty reform risks turning the holding of the executive to account into an earnest-but-dull exercise that pushes voters even further from politics.
One possibility might be to return to two 15-minute sessions per week, rather than the single 30-minute session of the current format. On the plus-side, such a change might diffuse some of the tension by spreading it more evenly throughout the week. The reason for the change in 1997 was sound enough, however – namely that preparing for PMQs was taking up too much of the Prime Minister’s time.
In truth, most of the changes that must be made are in the hands of MPs themselves – and that includes Mr Speaker. If Mr Bercow were to “name” the worst of the rowdies, with the result that they were temporarily expelled from the Chamber, rather than restricting himself to arch observations about their blood pressure, minds might be swiftly concentrated.
Much that voters dislike about PMQs it is in MPs’ own interests to fix. It does Government backbenchers no good, for instance, to ask transparently sycophantic questions, whether or not the wording has been supplied by a whip. It should be possible to be loyal to one’s party without having to embarrass oneself.
It was notable that, in a smattering of sessions since the start of the year, Ed Miliband has used the simple technique of lowering his voice, so that MPs have to be quiet to hear him, even at times offering to work with the Government on matters that cross party lines. Such efforts made a welcome change. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister – who can be courteous to opposition MPs and who can rise above party on some sombre occasions – has tended to respond to such overtures with debating-society insults.
The same goes for the common complaint that politicians avoid answering the question. Fiddling with the format is no solution. But it is in Mr Cameron’s interest to remember that the voters are watching and judge evasiveness as harshly as anything.
There is one fault in the format of PMQs that ought to be put right, though. Nick Clegg, who sits through the session mute, made a mistake in the coalition negotiations in failing to insist on a role for himself in the House of Commons’ big event. In a Coalition Government, the leader of the junior party should be held to account at the same time as the Prime Minister, perhaps answering every third question.
In summary, the Speaker is right to ask questions about improvements to the half hour of parliamentary prime time. Yet most of the answers lie either in the way he runs it or in MPs taking responsibility for their unpopularity.