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.
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.