Polite PMQs would be a piece of institutional spin

February 20, 2014 1:56 pm

The party leaders’ alleged antipathy to John Bercow is unlikely to have softened in recent days. The Speaker’s recent letter castigating MP’s loutish behaviour at PMQs would have been about as welcome at Number 10 as forecasts of another fortnight’s rain. Though neither Cameron, Miliband or Clegg have issued a direct response, the talk around Westminster is of Bercow’s self-obsession and populism which probably gives an idea of what the feeling is in the upper echelons. To be fair to him, though, Bercow probably has a point. The unruly tribal camaraderie which so characterises the PM’s weekly grilling is, to the uninitiated, totally baffling. I remember when I first watched it, I couldn’t understand why there was so much laughter on the back benches, given the seriousness of what was being discussed, or what on earth the uniform chorus of hoots was all about. No doubt about it: some of the behaviour at PMQs takes for granted the privileged role to which MPs have been entrusted, and can trivialise the subject of the day, however grave. Bluntly, it’s not what people want from their public representatives.

But PMQ reformers are at risk of iconoclasm here. Like it or not, PMQs is our entire party system in microcosm where tribal skulduggery is the order of every day. And, however imperfect, our party system has provided us with the most stable political environment in the world. Likewise, we can’t easily dismiss the unruly ‘hear hears’ as merely anachronistic. Let’s not forget that it was precisely to this chorus that historic legislation like the Slave Trade Act was passed. We may not like it, but dainty, polite PMQs would simply not reflect our constitution, history, or the way UK politics actually works. It would be a piece of institutional spin, with MPs putting on faces for the public moments before returning to whatever piece of intrigue they were working on before the clock struck 12. Worse, it would be boring.

Luke de Pulford

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