PMQs – Political Theatre that’s Out of Time

Prime Minister’s Questions—or #PMQs as it’s come to be known as on twitter—has long been the weekly showcase set-piece of the British Parliament. It’s the opportunity for MPs to put questions directly to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s opportunity to… well, to show off, I suppose.

I’ve re-watched (well, actually, watched for the first time as an adult would be a better description) the BBC satirical series from the 80s “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” on Britbox and there’s a scene in the final series where PM Hacker brags about his performance in PMQs in terms of making his own MPs cheer and laugh rather than give good, informative answers to the questions he’s been asked.

And that little scene pretty much sums up the problem with PMQs as I see it—it’s theatre. Political theatre. And nothing more.

This has really been highlighted in the past three weeks. Parliament returned after the Easter break and due to the requirements of Social Distancing to combat COVID-19, the number of MPs allowed into the chamber of House of Commons is strictly limited with other MPs dialling in via video link. PMQs is usually packed to the rafters—one of the rare occasions the chamber is actually full—and as a result, both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are playing to their own MPs more than anything else.

But in a mostly empty chamber “playing to the crowd” simply doesn’t work. During the first two weeks, the highly qualified highly experienced Queen’s Counsel Keir Starmer forensically torn the poorly qualified failed City Solicitor Dominic Rabb to shreds.

And today, which Prime Minister Johnson stepping back into the Chamber for the first time since his illness, it was even starker how much this format is out of date.

For the third week in a row, Starmer was calm and calculated. He built a case like the experienced barrister he is—not so much “landing punches” on the PM, but surgically slicing strips off him.

And what was the Prime Minister’s response? He played to an absent crowd because that’s all he knows how to do. Our PM doesn’t do detail, but he’s up against a man who is all about the detail. He doesn’t stand a chance. As I said on Twitter earlier today (from my ‘real me’ account I use for political ranting rather than my author account)…

Johnson waffled. He blustered. He avoided the questions and it showed because he wasn’t able to toss an insult across the dispatch box like so many PMs have done in the past then sit back and revel in the cheers of his own MPs.

But this isn’t about Johnson. It’s about PMQs. It’s out-dated. It’s a theatre show we no longer need. It’s a relic of an adolescent democracy that thinks it’s a world leader but sadly isn’t any longer.

We need a new way of holding the Prime Minister to account on a regular basis. A modern way. A ‘grown-up’ way. And for me, that’s in the Committee format used to question other ministers so well.

Just imagine the PM facing a committee made up of the LOTO, and the leaders of the SNP, the Lib Dems, PC, the Greens, etc. We’d get difficult questions all the time, rather than the “look how good we are” questions from Government back benchers we so often get now.

And the committee would demand answers. There’d be no hiding behind the baying mob. No playing to the crowd. It would be the mark of modern grown-up democracy.

But it will never happen. Why? Because Britain isn’t a modern grown-up democracy. It’s a relic of Empire that’s well past its sell-by date.

And that makes me grumpy.

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