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10 October 2018

Soft questions at PMQs are actually good. Here’s why

Far from being a dereliction of duty, backbenchers are correct to see their interests as aligned with that of the party they support. 

By Stephen Bush

I have a guilty secret: I like the planted questions by supportive government backbenchers at Prime Minister’s Questions. You know, the “Does the Prime Minister agree with me that she’s doing a wonderful job?” or the “Does the Prime Minister agree that Jeremy Corbyn would lead this country into a hellscape of fire, ash and universal free childcare?”

I don’t mean that I find them diverting to listen to or I agree with their essential premise: but I don’t regard them as something that is intrinsically worthy of disdain. Here’s why.

Imagine for a moment you are a backbench MP for the governing party. It doesn’t have to be this government: it can be one led by Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, Harriet Harman or whoever. The point is, you broadly share the governing ethos and support the overall political project of the government of the day.

Of course, not everything is perfect. Perhaps there’s a leisure centre in your constituency that is being closed down or is back of the queue for renovation. Maybe one of your constituents is being treated badly by immigration officials. Could be there’s a new housing development. Or you think the government’s flagship welfare reform is a disaster waiting to happen. Again, it’s your hypothetical fantasy, you choose.

The good news is that you have a question coming up at PMQs. Now’s your chance to really sock it to your Prime Minister and make them look terrible on television and….hand an opposition led by [insert political leader you dislike of your choice] a victory in the bubble.

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Why would you ever do this? I mean, seriously, why would it ever be in your interests to do this? You are always better off when it’s your side talking with Downing Street about what question they want and then slipping in your local pothole problem or reiterating that you really can’t vote for policy x in its current form. PMQs is the least rewarding arena to embarrass your own party as no-one ever remembers anything about why you embarrassed your own Prime Minister, they just remember that the Prime Minister had a bad day.

It can be in the interests of a collective of government backbenchers to do this repeatedly unless there is a change of policy: for instance it may be in the combined interests of Conservative enemies of Chequers to be as difficult as they can across the whole of the government’s agenda to force Theresa May into a U-Turn. But it is never ever in the interests of a lone backbencher to do this.

I feel that when we slag off politicians who ask sympathetic questions – I don’t mean when we make fun of the format or snark about it in parliamentary sketches but when we do it seriously – we’re slipping into a trap of seeing politics primarily as about our entertainment as journalists and not about the advancement of political projects.

So more power to the sycophants, I say.