Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What is the point of PMQs?

It may be a controversial statement, but it is my opinion that the tradition of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) has no democratic function whatsoever. Why do I say that?
  1. Firstly, it would be wrong that the only opportunity for parliament to bring the leader of Her Majesty's Government to account would be within a couple of hours per week when short questions only can be asked and, for the majority of MPs, this is a single question that has no relation to any ongoing debate.
  2. Secondly, the majority of questions from the members of the Labour Party are planted to allow the prime minister to give a good account of himself. A couple of questions I viewed today could easily have been worded "would my Honourable friend agree that the leader of the Opposition got it wrong again".
  3. Thirdly, it is a huge media spectacle broadcast live on BBC TV and online and so not simply closeted away on the Parliamentary Channel and so each participant plays a role in the drama. Often the performance of a party leader is related to their performance at PMQs, particularly if they asked a difficult question of the prime minister.
  4. Fourthly, and lastly at this point, it is really all about permanent campaigning and party politics. Opposition leaders and MPs must take this opportunity to publicly score points against the prime minister and diminish his standing and enhance their own; the prime minister needs to enhance his standing: and so it goes.

Today Cameron raised the tragic case of Baby P, Brown talked of procedure, investigations and reports rather than ensuring as of now such a failure in the protection of a vulnerable child could never happen again and accused David Cameron of playing party politics with a child's life. The ensuing few moments (watch here) of the debate saw Cameron getting increasingly angry at that claim and (possibly) taking the opportunity to score further points with Brown saying yes it was terrible but procedure was in place, investigations were going to happen. It was not exactly a high point for democracy and the great institution of our parliament.

But the problem is not solely about the way Brown responded. It is about the context of what PMQs has become. Brown has spent most of his time as prime minister on the back foot defending himself against people who are often better performers than he is. He hides behind procedure and argues that the right response will emerge from a measured process of deliberation and investigation, that is what he is about. He is unable to act the emotional leader expressing public grief at Baby P's brutal murder at the hands of her parents, not is he able to slam Haringey council's operatives who failed to prevent that murder, it must all be investigated. His response may seem inadequate, and indeed it lacked warmth or compassion so it was indeed a huge failure of communication; but it is also a failure of the PMQ bearpit style of attack and counter attack. At the end of the day the truth is nothing will be done for a long time as the failure needs investigating, but you cannot say that; the easy option is to make the other guy look as if he is playing politics with lives, but that can have repercussions not just on the person attacked but also the attacker. The verdict on Brown will probably be pretty bad based on today's performance, evidence from the Have Your Say section of the BBC News website suggests already this is the case:

1303: Have Your Say "The prime minister has shown his complete lack of tact, discretion and decency during this debate. He's a one-trick pony; an ex-chancellor - and, unfortunately for British tax payers - he's never been any good at that either." 'Pavillionend', Canterbury.

1 comment:

Matt Hurst said...

"Have Your Say" isn't really a hotbed of fair comment is it. The terms of McBroon and the like prove this point.

From what i've gaged from more moderate people is that it's a disturbing use of political point scoring that could of easily been brought up in a totally different way, PMQ's has been ineffective since the 80's and maybe even before it's not just Brown and Blair.

I think the obvious note of this was not this but last week when Interest rate cuts were announced. Some banks sat on the issue of Mortgage rate cuts even though it was important to sit and think on this issue, Vine's Radio 5 show recieved thousands of calls calling for a quick decision to what is an important decision, instant government is problematic.

Remember Brown's been criticised over his choice of holiday attire, by these people on "Have Your Say" most moderates don't even bother with it, i don't.