PMQs draws a bit of attention to parliament's work, which must count for something. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Face it, PMQs is better viewing than committees where the narcoleptic fear to tread

In defence of Westminster's weekly Punch and Judy session.

Prime Minister’s Question time is – like the bongs of Big Ben and the inevitability that somewhere on the internet, someone is tweeting something discouraging at the Prime Ministerial Twitter feed – an oasis of certainty in an uncertain world. It is the same each week, and subject only to modest variations: Miliband attacks, Dave parries, a couple of backbenchers ask about Equitable Life, all the commentators call it for their leader of choice, rinse-and-repeat-next-Wednesday.

PMQs is something that splits opinion. On the one hand, some argue that they like the rough-and-tumble, the atavistic shouting and heckling. Okay, so it’s not exactly Socratic dialectic, but who hasn’t responded to a well-made point with the retort “YOUR MUM” at some stage in their life and found it hilarious? PMQs operates on this level and, being rather puerile myself, I can see why people love it and, also, love to complain about it. We’re British, dammit, it’s what we do. Who doesn’t watch Celebrity The Only Way is Chelsea Get Me out of Here? and claim that we’re doing so ironically, rather than because we enjoy watching Z-listers half-heartedly trying to sleep with each other?

On the other hand, those in favour of change might reasonably argue that this analogy doesn’t exactly convey “the noble derring-do of brave pilots in the cockpit of our nation,” which is borne out by recent Hansard Society research (only 12 per cent agreed that it made them proud of parliament) in a report which suggested ways in which the weekly bun-fight could be reformed to make it more modern and relevant to the viewers at home. The recommendations are supported by a Mumsnet petition that currently has around 50,000 signatures, which means that the proposals have a theoretical chance of being debated in the Commons on a backbench business motion, if the number of signatories reaches 100,000.

For all that I could easily never watch another repeat of Davezilla vs Milra, I’m not sure that the answer that the Hansard Society has come up with to reform PMQs is sound. It argues: “The format should be varied to facilitate a more discursive approach, pursuing genuine debate on just a few topical areas as well as more rapid-fire Q&As.”

Well, yes. That would be nice. But the thing is that this happens, right now, every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and on Wednesday too, before PMQs kicks off.

The Hansard Society also want to reduce the number of “open questions” and have a “renewed emphasis on closed, subject-specific questions from backbenchers.” But is this particularly necessary on the basis that subject-specific questions are already undertaken in departmental question time, alongside the more open-style, topical questions?

There’s an argument in favour of an open-question style topical debate in PMQs if, for no other reason, than a question tabled three sitting days before might no longer be relevant come the following Wednesday. Sure, you could make this case for departmental questions too, but if PMQs is about holding the executive to account rather than policy specifics, which might require the issue in question to be looked into in some detail, then there’s something to be said for allowing backbenchers a degree of spontaneity.

Furthermore, there’s plenty of interesting and worthwhile stuff that goes on in parliament, and always has, which requires cross-party working and genuine debate. Take former Culture Secretary Maria Miller the other week: there she was, at some ungodly hour of night, speaking out passionately against “revenge porn” in an adjournment debate. Or the work of the various select committees – particularly, it might be noted, the public accounts committee whose chair, the rather pugnacious Margaret Hodge, appears to be approaching Institutional Treasure status.

And do large numbers of people watch the non-PMQ aspects of parliament, where collegiate working and rational debate rule the day?

Do they buffalo.

I suppose the real question is, regardless of the merits of change, would these reforms work? I’m not altogether sure they would, otherwise we’d all be tuning in to watch Westminster Hall debates on fracking or potholes in Penge. While everyone claims to despise PMQs, it has to be true that it is widely watched and, at some level, popular. Although the Beeb gamely broadcasts from Statutory Instrument Committees where the narcoleptic fear to tread as well as the weekly shout-athon, commercial channels like Sky News wouldn’t do so unless there was something in it for them.

In short, PMQs might not represent everything that goes on in parliament but, in its current form, it does draw a bit of attention – albeit by accident via the more entertaining spectacle of the bawling – to some of its work. And something has to be better than nothing.

As for me, I’ll do the usual and put some soothing St Leonard of Cohen on the headphones, and crack on with the correspondence. And if people ask me what I thought about the performance afterwards, I just bluff it out with an airy, “Well, Miliband started strong but seemed to lose his mojo and I thought Dennis Skinner’s gag about posh boys on the Tory benches was hilarious.”

It’s not failed me yet.


Sadie Smith has been a bag-carrier in parliament for 13 years

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