When do you expect the UK will regain its triple A credit rating?
That was the question put to Prime Minister David Cameron by a newly elected Labour MP during Prime Minister’s Questions last week.
But if the Prime Minister knew the answer, he wasn’t in the mood to share. Instead, he complemented Labour’s Cat Smith for a question on fiscal responsibility – “a sign of progress,” according to the PM – and urged her to throw her hat in the ring for the Labour leadership contest.
It was a classic PMQ moment – an example of what the session has become over the decades, and demonstrative of why it needs to change.
No-one was expecting the Prime Minister to suddenly claim the triple A rating would be restored next Tuesday – or to give anything approaching a finite date. And in many respects he doesn’t need to. For all the handwringing and furrowed brows that accompanied the downgrading by Moody’s (February 2013) and Fitch (April 2013), the British economy has ticked along quite nicely since (although data on the economy’s productivity has given economists cause for concern). Nor should Mr Cameron be held at fault for turning what was a serious question into a punchline. He was, after all, simply carrying on the tradition of PMQs.
And this is the problem. PMQs has long since dispensed with any pretence of being an opportunity for the Prime Minister to discuss and debate the state of the nation. It has instead become an exercise in political sniping, in which crushing the opposition party – and particularly its leader – is prized above all.
The example of the credit rating questions stands out for two reasons. Firstly, the lack of an answer caused it to be picked up by City AM and the BBC amongst others. But secondly because it was a particularly inelegant segue from policy discussion to a metaphorical cuff round the back of the Labour Party’s head. Public relations consultants and political strategists, when preparing clients for media interviews, will (or at least should) talk about the technique of ‘bridging’, in which one receives a question with the potential to lead the interview away from the interviewee’s key messages. The idea is that you create a ‘bridge’ to get back to what you want to talk about. But you at least need to acknowledge the question to do so.
Mr Cameron declined to fully acknowledge the question. Hence it stands out as an example of what is wrong with PMQs, the principal advert and demonstration of parliamentary debate in the UK, which perversely bares relatively little resemblance to parliamentary democracy at any other time. Perhaps it’s time to turn the clock back, ditch some of the ‘infotainment’ value of PMQs, and make it more a formal discussion of the issues of the day – leaving out the political backbiting. It might make good news copy, but at the moment, it’s useful for precious little else.