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26 February 2015

Old dogs need new tricks: The bark and pomp of PMQs

Politicians can't resist the pre-occupation of politics.

By Edward Pearce

We are told all the time that people hate politicians. That statement, flippant, glib and unargued as it is, always takes me back to a by-election that I covered in 1986 – Ryedale, North Yorks, Conservative marginal – alongside a very intelligent and rather nice Tory candidate, Neil Balfour.

We ring at the door. A resentful old bloke in a dirty cardigan shambles towards us. The candidate diffidently introduces himself with an inoffensive little spiel. The old bloke looks at him, adding with biblical assurance: “Politicians! They’re all in it for themselves.” That’s what the Mail, the Express and the Sun tell people to think, more or less all the time – except for key runs of a few weeks, twice a decade, when they tell them to vote Conservative.

Having lived in the Press Gallery for 20-odd years and loved it, I dissent. In it for themselves? Some of the time, certainly. Just like accountants and interior decorators – just like us. But all of them? I’ve watched, listened to, eaten, drunk and argued with many politicians. I keep in touch with them today from my place of exile, where I write books about the Whig cabinet of 1830 (more politicians).

The best are original; the next best are interesting and/or difficult. The middling tranche of politicians is diligent and rather too loyal. Going down, you get the defeated (who overlap with the idle) and the modest-sized sump of rogues, “only in it for themselves”, between all of which categories there is a great deal of overlap.

What’s really true is that politicians, in it for all sorts of reputable reasons – as well as the rational ambition that fires any talent – do not and cannot rest from the preoccupation of politics. They can’t stop, even on those occasions when they are doing themselves no good at all. And the clearest, sustained, most blatant example of this is Prime Minister’s Questions.

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An invention of the past century, PMQs has a primary function of ensuring head-to-head confrontation between the governing and opposition leaders. It has not always been the knuckles-to-forehead grind it is at present. Clips of Macmillan and Gaitskell flicker with enjoyable ill-will. Macmillan was Chevalieresque and sceptical of the idea that anything mattered at all. Gaitskell, earnest expert, generational civil servant, brought a zeal for statistics to the chamber. Bunyan could have used them to illustrate human qualities. Politics apart, they couldn’t stand each other: it was a fascinating contest between the light-fingered and the stiff-necked.

Cameron and Miliband do not fascinate in the same way. Anvils are beaten with muffled hammers; sparks stay unstruck. Cameron’s is a dreadful playground triumphalism. He does pompous in a very old-fashioned, lip-in-curl way. With the lordliness goes its natural companion, pomposity. The bland self-contentment slipping into irked dismissal stuck out during a recent contested statement on vaccination targets.

Contrast this with Ed Miliband. Incidentally, why “Ed”? Why do high and exalted individuals, manifestly not one of the crowd, insist on using the universal “I’m Not Stuck Up, I’m Everybody’s Mate” act? Miliband is stuck just off top decibel. He never speaks but he shouts. Killer murmur, corner-of-the-mouth knock-em-deadery, he can’t do. The volume is jammed at the top. As for the wavelengths of debate – playfulness, irony, understatement, occasional easygoing concession – all are permanently unobtainable. His being a good thing – the man I want to win – is not the point.

So we are stuck with Cameron being pompous and Miliband barking away. Prime Minister’s Questions sounds like the Mayor of Toytown being heckled by Dennis the Dachshund.

The model one-on-one debater, indeed, model all-purpose public speaker, is still Kenneth Clarke, who combines reasonableness with healthy disbelief in a voice that signals: “None of this matters.” It is a style that any party leader, facing Prime Minister’s Questions, could adapt in order to coin votes. For although politicians aren’t all in it for themselves, they take questions of economy, housing, health, and each other’s imperfections far too seriously.

Excepting the present income-tax bypass debate, which neither pomposity nor shouting can make any less fascinating, and which justifies an emergency debate (or several), the regular encounters of PM and hoping-to-be-PM are a burden on the national patience. And yet this is not “politicians in it for themselves”, but politicians banging on about . . . whatever it is they’re banging on about.

Edward Pearce is a former parliamentary sketchwriter for the Telegraph and the New Statesman. His most recent book is “Pitt the Elder: Man of War” (Pimlico)