Order, order... Is it time to bring rowdy MPs into line and reform PMQs?

PMQs, that weekly display of raucousness, do nothing for the image of politics. Thankfully, reform is in the air

Donald Macintyre
Friday 27 December 2013 21:16
Prime Minister's Questions are frequently used to air planted questions orchestrated by whips
Prime Minister's Questions are frequently used to air planted questions orchestrated by whips

The House of Commons has got so raucous in recent months that Speaker John Bercow was moved to warn MPs in November that he was receiving “bucketloads” of complaints from the public about their “low-grade, down-market and unnecessary” misbehaviour.

In a year that has seen brawls, fist fights and wrestling in the national parliaments of Ukraine, Taiwan and Georgia – not to mention the arrest of a Jordanian MP for firing an AK47 in an argument with a fellow-legislator – the antics of British politicians may seem pretty tame. But the notably cacophonous tone of the House of Commons in 2013 – especially but not only during Prime Minister’s Questions – has prompted renewed worries among some MPs about its negative public image.

There has been little take-up of Mr Bercow’s call over three years ago for a “wholesale review” of PMQs. But the Labour leader Ed Miliband, who last year suggested that he would ideally like to change a system which he compared to “bunch of school kids who want to shout at each other”, is said still to be looking for ways in which it might be reformed.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the uproar and verbal punch-ups that dominate the weekly jousts and other set-piece debates have cemented public disapproval of the 11 per cent pay increase recommended by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in the wake of the 200 MPs’ expenses scandal.

The backbench uproar on both sides of the Chamber during PMQs calls into question whether the half-hour confrontations on Wednesday – changed by Tony Blair from twice weekly 15 minute sessions on Tuesday and Thursday largely to make life easier for the PM – are a serious opportunity to hold the executive to account rather than one for the main parties to produce partisan soundbites which will make the television news.

Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband repeatedly use insults and often confusing statistics in the long-running argument over whether the previous or the present government is to blame for present-day social or economic harm.

And while there are exceptions, the party leaders are routinely supported with “planted” questions circulated by government and opposition whips to promote the current line of attack on their opponents agreed by party managers. Some MPs believe the atmosphere will deteriorate still further as the 2015 election approaches.

But would-be reformers like the opposition leader face a dilemma. Should improvements be sought on an all-party basis through the Speaker? Or unilaterally? While David Cameron is an often successful street fighter in PMQs, delighting his backbenchers with attacks on Labour, Miliband, with a key role and six allocated questions a session, could do much to change the tone.

But the temptation to exploit a government setback to the maximum is all but irresistible. And his own MPs are frequently willing him to “draw blood”.

One paradoxical explanation for the unbridled inter-party acrimony of many Commons debates is that in some respects Parliament is working much better than it has in decades. In backbench debates and the now significantly more powerful select committees, for example, strident point-scoring is much less common. According to this theory, the parties need PMQs as a safety valve in which they can kick the hell out of each other.

Much also depends on the leading frontbenchers involved. To take one small example, Hilary Benn and Eric Pickles, who face each other on local government and are poles apart ideologically, manage to confront each other quietly and even civilly.

But as MPs know only too well, PMQs is the “shop window” through which all but BBC Parliament junkies see the Commons. Some senior MPs like the Tory Treasury Select Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie want to develop recent parliamentary reforms further by once a month substituting for PMQs a much more serious two-hour interrogation of the PM by around a dozen Select Committee chairmen (who are now elected by all MPs in a secret ballot).

Unless something is done, however, PMQs will continue to foster the negative picture the public has of Parliament. As one email sent to Mr Bercow crisply put it: “I have a difficult enough job as it is to get the majority of my family and friends to show some interest in politics today without these morons... making the task even more difficult.”

Disorder, disorder: A year of excess

13 February Liberal Democrat Dr Julian Huppert provokes widespread groans of “oh, no” just by standing up to speak. Frequent such barracking leads Dr Huppert to complain later in the year of Commons bullying.

20 March Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle admonishes Ed Balls for brandishing a photocopy of an Evening Standard front page with Budget details during the Budget speech, and then rebukes still-febrile Labour MPs during Ed Miliband’s speech: “Order. I cannot understand an Opposition who do not want to hear their own leader.”

26 June David Cameron refuses to answer questions from Labour’s Chris Bryant until he apologises to him for accusing him of misleading the House over meetings with Rupert Murdoch. Later, Tory MPs accuse a Labour MP of making a rude sign at George Osborne during the Spending Review statement.

1 July A Tory backbencher shouts, “What are you talking about?” during a speech by Labour’s Stella Creasy questioning government commitment to overseas aid. The Speaker, John Bercow, tells Tory Ian Liddell-Grainger: “Be quiet, and if you cannot be quiet, get out.” Aid minister Alan Duncan owns up to being the offender.

10 July Worst uproar of the year so far in Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) as a row over party funding escalates. The Speaker declares: “We cannot just have a wall of noise.” He later complains about “very poor” behaviour among “large numbers” of MPs on all sides. William Hague mouths “stupid woman” as Labour’s Cathy Jamieson asks a question about the Foreign Secretary’s link to Tory donors.

30 August Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy admits using “industrial language” in a shouting match in which Labour is accused of “appeasing Assad” and being “a disgrace” by Michael Gove after the Government loses a vote on intervention in Syria.

23 October The Speaker rebukes the Prime Minister for describing Mr Miliband as a “conman” over energy prices, saying the word “conman” is “frankly, unparliamentary” and “below the level”.

20 November At an especially raucous PMQs Mr Cameron outrages Labour MPs by joking that Michael Meacher – who has claimed UK investment is below even Mali’s – may have been on a “night on the town” with disgraced Co-op boss Paul Flowers, and taken “mind-altering substances”. Mr Cameron withdraws but Ed Balls repeatedly asks Mr Cameron across the chamber: “Have you taken cocaine?”

6 December Labour MP Sarah Champion claims that sexist Tory backbenchers “are very good at gesticulating about female assets” during debates.

18 December Labour’s John McDonnell breaks Commons taboo by accusing David Cameron from a seated position of having “lied to my constituents” over the prospects for a third runway at Heathrow. Mr Cameron says this is “completely inappropriate” language. Later, Tory MPs are accused of laughing and jeering during a food-banks debate as Labour’s Fiona Mactaggart tells of constituents fighting over discounted food at Tesco.

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