Tory MPs abandon Theresa May at PMQs

The prime minister’s team has issued a plea for helpful questions from her party.

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One of the most striking things about watching Prime Minister’s Questions under Theresa May are the swathes of green leather visible in the Commons chamber. MPs are abandoning what was once the set-piece event of the parliamentary week in their droves, as Downing Street is discovering to its cost. 

Andrew Bowie, Theresa May’s parliamentary private secretary, has emailed all 313 of his colleagues to complain of the “very disappointing” uptake for the weekly ballot in which questions are assigned. Only 93 Conservative MPs submitted questions last week – well exceeded by 130 from Labour – and just one has their name on the order paper for next week. 

In his message, passed by a Tory source to the New Statesman, Bowie urged MPs who had not been successful in the ballot to “bob”, or attempt to catch the Speaker’s eye, in order to secure a question at Wednesday’s session – and to give No 10 advance notice of what they intended to ask. 

Dear Colleague,

As you may be aware, there will be an unusually large number of free hits available at PMQs next Wednesday (3rd April), as only one Conservative colleague was successful in the shuffle. 

Last week, only 93 Conservative colleagues submitted questions, compared with 130 for Labour. It goes without saying that these numbers are very disappointing and must improve if we are to continue to outpace Labour in the polls. 

The Prime Minister and her team would be very grateful if colleagues could be sure to enter the ballot each week.

Nevertheless, the large number of free hits provides a number of excellent opportunities for anyone who was unsuccessful in the shuffle or wasn't able to table last week.
 
If you are planning to "bob" for a question, the Prime Minister would be very grateful if you could let me know at your earliest convenience what you are planning on asking. This will ensure that, if you are successful, she can give you a full and helpful response. Could I also ask colleagues that they give me an idea of what they are hoping to ask by 17:00 on Tuesday 2nd  so that the Questions Team at 10 Downing Street have time to prepare a comprehensive brief. 
 
As always, if you have any questions or I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to ask. 
 
Yours ever,

Andrew Bowie MP
PPS to the Prime Minister

The appeal provides more evidence – as if any were needed – of just how parlous a state both May’s premiership and her leadership of the Tory Party are in. On a practical level it is a mark that the government Whips’ Office, whose job it is to plant sympathetic interventions and softball questions, is just as weak and incompetent as Conservative MPs frequently complain it is. 

But more worryingly for the prime minister, the inability of her Whips to drum up anything more than a “very disappointing” number of PMQs speaks to the dearth of motivation on the government benches. Tory backbenchers are in no mood to be helpful – and there is no longer any political incentive to be so anyway. Taken together, that doesn’t bode well for the endgame of Brexit – or, indeed, May's hopes for a dignified exit on her own terms.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.