In 2008, as a 21 year old, I had the particular fortune to attend a memorable session of Prime Ministers Questions. I was seated on one of the seats at either end of the chamber normally reserved for civil servants and special guests of Cabinet Ministers. These seats are sometimes used by MPs for whom there is no space in the overcrowded Commons, and as a result I had the unusual good fortune to be seated next to no less a figure than Lembit Opik.
the 22nd December 2008 was the session of PMQs in which Gordon Brown famously took a stumble over his words, and claimed to have "saved the world". Later on in the same session, Nick Clegg, hot on the heels of an interview in which he'd apparently claimed to have engaged in sexual encounters with "no more than 30 women" misguidedly began his question by claiming that he had recently been visited by a "single mother". Howls of jubilant yet derisive laughter filled the room as Members shouted the number "31" at the Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
It was enormous fun, and I enjoyed it greatly. So much fun that I almost felt compelled to join in the shouting and barracking and at one point I found myself engaging in a quiet (but forbidden) "heeeeeere heeeeere" of agreement. Fortunately, my oral indiscretion was drowned out by the rather greater noise coming from those MPs present. Despite my enjoyment, I still left the Chamber burdened by a general sense of disapproval. Despite having enjoyed the spectacle, it felt exclusive and judgemental and cruel. I realised that PMQs isn't particularly about scrutiny, it's about point-scoring, exchanging sound bites, and trying to demoralise your opponents. A "loss" is seen as a mark against your ability to lead, while a "win" puts a spring the step of the relevant party's step.
The arguments for the continuation of PMQs in its current form are relatively persuasive: it is the only Parliamentary forum which anybody pays any real attention to, it's entertaining and accessible style attracts the attention of those who wouldn't otherwise pay the blindest bit of notice to Parliament. It gives a regular opportunity to backbenchers to grill the Government on any topic of their choosing in a high profile setting. It also allows the Leader of the Opposition to showcase their critiques of the Government and their proposed alternatives.
Though it no doubt attracts more attention than 99% of what goes on it Parliament, a recent report by the Hansard Society puts to bed the notion that this is a wholly positive thing, with 33% of those sampled saying that it puts them off politics (27% disagreed). Likewise, 67% of those surveyed said that it featured 'too much party political point-scoring', and only 12% said that it made them 'proud of Parliament'. These figures corroborate my view that though people may be interested in Prime Ministers Questions, it is in the same way that people are interested in 'Embarrassing Bodies' on Channel 4. They may find themselves unable to stop gawping at a grotesque set of boobs, but that certainly doesn't equate to approval.
Nonetheless, there are clearly elements of Prime Ministers Questions worth preserving. As Meg Russell points out on Democratic Audit, positive changes in policy have been brought about directly due to a well-targeted PMQ. Likewise, attention has been drawn to subjects that may otherwise have been brushed under the carpet, such as Tom Watson's work on historic allegations of sexual abuse. Other countries legislatures would love the opportunity to bring their head of state or Government to heel. Though John McCain, when running for President in 2008 suggested that he might like to introduce a US version of PMQs, it is difficult to imagine the famously cantankerous Arizona Senator lasting 10 minutes in anything resembling PMQs.
But would that in itself make McCain unsuited for executive leadership? After all, even Bill Clinton, the most gifted political communicator in living memory, would likely flounder at PMQs. it creates metrics for Prime Ministerial 'viability' which have little or no relevance to the actual tasks of political or indeed national leadership. Though a relatively old institution, PMQs actually helps perpetuate the relatively modern phenomenon of Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Oppositions being primarily concerned with slickness, presentation and verbal fluency. While we all want our political leaders to exhibit these attributes, they would come behind judgement, morality, competence and honesty on most people's account of an ideal political leader.
But even though somebody slick like David Cameron does often perform impressively at Prime Ministers Questions, this is not what most people take away from the sessions. They see a braying mob making unusual noises, shouting one another down, making no effort whatsoever to engage with the important issues facing the country. At times, they witness a bizarre cross between an Oxford University debating society and my old year 7 classroom when the teacher ducked out of the room for 10 minutes. It is marred by planted and sycophantic questions on the one hand, and hostile 'gotcha' questions on the other. It is neither particularly representative of the majority of what goes on in Parliament nor in keeping with the responsibility and gravity of the matters that it supposedly exists to shed light upon.
I see two potential ways of reforming PMQs. The first is for the Speaker to get tough. He has shown that he agrees with the Hansard Society's findings and written to both Ed Miliband and David Cameron about their MPs conduct. He could make clear that he will strike down ad hominem insults, overly hostile questions, and enforce proper answers from the Prime Minister. He could also refuse to accept questions from those MPs who shout and bray. The problem with this approach is that it endangers the Speaker's position by fostering resentment against him, and that it may only last as long as he follows the approach or indeed is in office.
The second potential route forward is institutional. As Professor Colin Talbot argues, since its creation in 2002, the Liaison Committee - made up of the heads of the permanent select committee Chairs - has made a good show of exacting meaningful scrutiny of the Prime Minister in a way which is relatively non-partisan, largely good natured, and enlightening for the few people who pay attention to it.
A modified version of this format should be adopted for Prime Ministers Questions, with a lottery of backbenchers to choose who will make up a 'Prime Ministers Questions' committee in which MPs will have a chance to ask forensic questions about a matter of Government policy. The sessions could be chaired by the Leader of the Opposition (who would get his own complement of questions much like now), or they could be Chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons, with the Leader of the Opposition being a permanent committee member.
As always, I suspect that little will change, and Parliament will continue to satisfy itself that the unedifying means of Prime Minsters Questions is justified by the noble ends of getting Joe Public to tune into the weekly Wednesday lunchtime freakshow. But hopefully the Hansard Report, and the Speaker's encouraging response, will see the beginning of a movement to reform PMQs. MPs are largely decent, publicly minded sorts. They should make more of an effort to show it on those rare occasions that people actually pay attention to their work.
Image credit: UK Parliament (Creative Commons BY)
Sean Kippin is Managing Editor of Democratic Audit, the LSE's daily blog on democracy and human rights in the UK.Suggest a correction