End the Punch-and-Judy politics

A less confrontational, more thoughtful era of politics has to start with David Cameron.

In British politics, Punch and Judy are for ever in and out of favour. David Cameron, as a new leader of the Conservative Party, promised an end to Punch-and-Judy-style debating, but then couldn't resist a bit of it. Blair was the same.

I guess even a saint, standing in front of everyone in the playground as they all shout "You're rubbish!", would respond eventually.

So I was pleased to see a tweet on today's PMQs from the Times's columnist David Aaronovitch today which said:

Rather enjoying the lobby's disappointment at PMQs not being a pointless slanging match.

Contrast that with a blog from Iain Martin at the Wall Street Journal, who claims that without the "Punch and Judy of politics" PMQs are "boring".

I, however, believe there is a way of getting this right.

In my fantasy world, David Cameron arrives as PM and sends out messages to all members of government saying that parliament is going to be totally different from now on.

It is no longer the intention to win "points" according to the Press Gallery's rules at Prime Minister's Questions. Instead, even if his tongue is bleeding from biting it, Cameron will resist the baiting and treat every questioner with the respect that his or her constituents deserve.

Cameron also communicates to all backbenchers, "No cheering and no jeering. We are in a serious and sober time in politics."

Just before the election, I found myself in a dubious situation at the arch Tory Carlton Club. The guest of honour was Margaret Thatcher. The person sitting next to me, who does not mix in typical Tory circles, asked me why all these rather bumptious men at the dinner kept shouting in über-posh voices: "Har, har, har!" I had to explain that they were saying, "Hear, hear."

If someone tuned in to PMQs without being a regular, they would ask similar questions.

To the wits of parliament, a Punch-and-Judy ban would be sheer torture. Could someone like William Hague or Michael Gove make it through their departmental questions without a witty putdown?

I would much rather see a parliament where someone is lauded for strong economic policies than one where that same person is sanctified for coming up with a "Stalin to Mr Bean" pay-off line.

Cameron himself would have to resist his weekly pre-rehearsed soundbites, criticising Ed Milliband's pre-rehearsed soundbites. Would someone like Ed Balls become uncomfortable and exposed in a debating scenario where the questions are searching but from which the invective is absent?

When a political reporter gives a politician points out of ten for PMQs, it is often based entirely on how well the MP bitch-slapped his or her opponent, not on the substance of the issue.

But if respect for politicians has never been lower and we have been doing PMQs the same way for years, isn't it time to try something different?

Come on, Cameron, you can change this. Nobody else can. It starts with you.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.