Downing Street tells Tory MPs: Stop abandoning PMQs

Theresa May's team has blasted leadership-obsessed MPs for failing to turn up in her final weeks. Her successor faces just as hard a job.

NS

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Sessions of Prime Minister's Questions that star neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn, as was the case on Wednesday, are seldom considered box office by MPs. But one of the striking features of May's premiership in general, and its last months in particular, is how detached Conservative MPs have become from what was once the set-piece event of the parliamentary week. 

That much is obvious from the swathes of green leather visible behind the Prime Minister every Wednesday. But behind the scenes the picture is even bleaker. A long-running cause of frustration for Downing Street is that fewer and fewer Conservative MPs are bothering to enter the weekly ballot in which questions are allocated. In March, Andrew Bowie, May's parliamentary private secretary, emailed his colleagues to complain of the "very disappointing" uptake for ballot entries.

Yet despite encouraging more entries, the numbers have dropped even further since then, as a testy message sent by Bowie to the Tory MPs' WhatsApp group today - and subsequently leaked to the NS - illustrates.

Guys, I appreciate there is a lot on at the moment. But it might help, just a little, to dissuade the public of the notion that all we care about is the leadership and Brexit...that we are capable of raising our eyes above our collective navel, if more than 85 of us submitted for PMQs. I know that for many that there might seem little point in engaging in those 45 minutes on a Wednesday lunchtime, but it is ESSENTIAL that we have Conservative MPs asking about Conservative issues and issues that matter to our constituents at PMQs- the most watched 45 minutes of the parliamentary week. We are the party of Government and of this whole country. Let's demonstrate that please. Thanks.

In some respects, the disengagement is unsurprising. May is in the last weeks of her premiership and there is little of substance she can offer her backbenchers. But that isn't to say her successor has no cause for concern. This failure to fill benches and control contributions from Conservative MPs at PMQs is first and foremost a sign of a whipping operation that isn't fit for purpose.

Plenty of Tory MPs believe that is a consequence of the incompetence of May's whips in particular. There is plenty of evidence to suggest they're right. But the low uptake also reflects the extent of the party's divisions. For those MPs opposed to Downing Street's direction of travel on Brexit, unhelpfulness is now the default. Whoever comes next could soon struggle to overcome both obstacles.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.