The PMQs Debate: Unlike its subject, a polite response

February 21, 2014 2:15 pm

One of the good things about working at a public affairs agency full of people from different backgrounds and wildly different political views is that you occasionally disagree with your colleagues. It can hardly be otherwise when you work in politics. As such, I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Luke’s recent post advocating keeping PMQs much as it is right now.

Firstly, though, where we do agree. As Luke notes, the behaviour of many at PMQs, from each and all sides, does trivialise the big issues, be it in the form of quite awful and obviously planted questions or just pointless braying at the opposition leader. It’s certainly not what people want from their elected representatives: a Hansard Society survey recently found that just 12% of respondents thought that PMQs made them proud of Parliament.

This makes those defenders of the PMQs status quo partly wrong in principle – Parliamentarians are there to represent the people that elected them, not indulge themselves. MPs are, justifiably, often quite irritated at the public’s low opinion of them but they can’t have it both ways.

But it is also wrong in practice. Luke suggests PMQs may reflect how UK politics actually works but I disagree with this, certainly if we move away from the partisan sniping in the media. On a more substantive level, most lobbyists and political advisors know that party politicians are capable of working very harmoniously together on a particular cause or issue in the way that most of the general public claim they want to see more of. That there is no indication of this at PMQs is a shame: it shouldn’t just be those of us who work in politics that see how sensible, rational and decent MPs can be.

I’m also wary of hiding behind history as a reason for not fixing something that is pretty obviously broken. For a start, PMQs isn’t even that old, certainly not in the long history of Parliament. Indeed, in its current format it is ‘only’ 17 years old; precedent for tweaking it has long existed. Parliament is full of arcane rules about how the place should work that either nobody observes or were quietly scrapped.

Making PMQs more polite might even return it to its original purpose of actually holding the PM to account. Given the unusual amount of media attention the leader of the opposition gets during PMQs – a rare luxury for him or her – the weekly event also has a useful and oddly underappreciated role in highlighting their performance too.

This wouldn’t imperil political stability nor would it even be boring. Making the PM answer a question, forcing him or her to be well-briefed and living on their wits, is what half-decent debate should be about. Stopping the backbenchers braying and shouting insults doesn’t mean that questions don’t have to be aggressive and sharp.

Finally – and this really is a pipe-dream, but who knows – a better quality, more polite PMQs may – just may – improve the standing of Members of Parliament amongst the general public.

Samuel Blainey

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