In Defence of Prime Minister’s Questions
by Marc Geddes
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s suggested this week that prime minister’s questions should be abolished. Today we follow up our blogs on BBC Democracy Day by responding to Clegg’s comments. Marc Geddes, Associate Fellow of the Crick Centre disagrees with Clegg, arguing that he misunderstands how the drama of PMQs helps the public understand how politics works.
It is not difficult to find criticisms of the weekly round of jousting between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition – not least by the participants themselves. The prime minister, long ago, promised an end to Punch and Judy politics. More recently, Ed Miliband has proposed supplementing prime minister’s questions (PMQs) with a People’s Question Time. Meanwhile, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, called it a ‘cacophony’ that damages Parliament’s reputation. So in a way it is no great surprise that, on Sunday, Nick Clegg added his voice to a seemingly growing chorus calling PMQs a farce, believing it should be scrapped. Critics often point out that it does not examine policy nor is it able to hold the prime minister to account for the government’s actions. But to make this argument is to mischaracterise the purpose of prime minister’s questions and the way in which it sustains democratic politics.
In a Guardian article, John Crace asks of PMQs: ‘It’s good theatre, but what’s the point?’, to which the answer is precisely that: good theatre. Prime minister’s question time is a set-piece event, a weekly ritual with significant symbolic (not policy) importance. It is a snapshot of opinion that allows both lead actors of the play – David Cameron and Ed Miliband – to give their verdict on what is important to them. This makes the weekly jousting between the leaders a battle to outline their political priorities and therefore their competing visions for the country. So, David Cameron (usually) emphasises the importance of economic growth and Ed Miliband (usually) turns to the National Health Service or living standards.
Of course, and as with any good actors, David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s responses are well-scripted and well-rehearsed (not to mention repeated endlessly). But it would be disingenuous to suggest that they are merely acting and, once off- or backstage that they no longer believe their script – because they avowedly do. The constant attack and defence between Cameron and Miliband highlights their strengths and weaknesses, giving both an opportunity respond to them. If they fail to do so, or the public disagree with their responses (as so often they do), this can quickly turn into a big political issue.
In that sense, this is a piece of theatre designed specifically to reaffirm the broad contours of British adversarial politics. It measures the pulse of British politics and sets the agenda of the two main parties. It rallies party members to support and energise their party, who go on to continue to enact the same scripts on a different stage: the doorstep. For this reason, a mediocre – even good – performance at PMQs by either leader may be unremarkable, but a poor one will have dire consequences.
This symbolic value of PMQs should not be understated. It comes in many guises. For example, politicians enact different roles: Winston Churchill was known for thumping his fist on the despatch box to demonstrate his passion, drive and anger. A second example, politicians may choose to take with them props: Tony Blair would arrive with a thick folder with hundreds of tags and multi-coloured flags to show that he was perceived knowledgeable on all matters of government. A third, and final, example, politicians can make a statement with their costumes: the biggest story that came out of PMQs on 29 October 2014 was not what either Cameron or Miliband said, but what Harriet Harman had chosen to wear – a feminist t-shirt.
All three examples convey symbolic messages about the type of politician one espouses to be and the values that matter to them. The last example is particularly instructive. Though a cynic would point out that it was a cheap political point from the Labour Party (and let’s be honest, it probably was), it also underlies a deeper and more fundamental political difference between a centre-left that has embraced feminist ideas while a centre-right that has been resistant to them. Harman’s choice of dress did not change policy, but it sparked headlines and debates, which the Labour Party continued to reinforce every week purely by having a far greater proportion of women on its frontbench. This ripple effect basically fulfilled the key aim of PMQs as an agenda-setting tool (rather than an accountability mechanism).
But of course, therein also lies the problem. Prime minister’s questions occupies 30 minutes in the main chamber out of 35 sitting hours a week. Yet often, in any given week, it is the only debate broadcast on mainstream news channels (anecdotally, it would seem that there are signs that this is changing). The consequence of this is that it the public’s understanding of politics at Westminster has been badly distorted, in which many people assume that it is the only way politics is conducted.
The media has substantially magnified an adversarial and symbolic event at the expense of numerous other proceedings (select committee hearings and Westminster Hall debates to name just two examples). Indeed, the sustained questioning of the prime minister by the Liaison Committee once every six months demonstrates a completely different approach to holding David Cameron to account by the very same backbenchers that are seen howling and screaming in the main chamber. These grillings do not often make it to the news bulletins. Incidentally, if PMQs itself takes a serious turn, then it is barely reported either.
That is not to say that the blame for our negative perceptions of politics lies entirely with the media. The design of PMQs does need reform to take account of the fact that there are no longer two competing visions for the country by the government and the opposition, but at least five once the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP are included (and even more with nationalist parties). This is clearly a problem that needs to be fixed, and could go a long way to correct the negative view that all politicians are the same.
It goes without saying that the baying, howling and shouting by MPs of all colours needs to change, too, as it shows us only how juvenile politicians can be. But neither of those two facts take away from the crucial role that prime minister’s questions fulfils in our politics. We may not like the way that the (largely) scripted play is enacted by actors that we may not find especially convincing – but this does not mean we should shun the play completely.