“It’s taxi for Cameron!” declared Ed Milliband the Labour leader in parliament yesterday. The PM was reporting on the recovering health of the manufacturing sector pointing out that car exports were higher than ever. “Never mind car production, it’s taxi for Cameron!“ Zingers and pre-cooked one-liners are the stuff of Prime Minister’s Questions (or PMQs) in Westminster.
Anachronistic, silly, plain irrelevant, or the vital blood (although injected by glib PR machines) of parliamentary debate and democracy in action? Questioning of the prime minister by MPs in the Commons is a central part of British political culture; the sessions are theatrical and viewing tickets to the Strangers’ Gallery always in high demand. Until the 1880s questions to the PM were on equal footing with questions to other Ministers of the Crown. In 1881, time-limits and procedures for questions were introduced. In 1977 James Callaghan approved recommendations from the procedures committee that the PM should respond to most questions himself. Since 1997, it is each week on Wednesday afternoon that the prime minister must come to the House (when sitting) to take questions.
This Wednesday Mr Milliband dealt Cameron a rather potent punch over Government’s minimum alcohol pricing U-turn: “Can the Prime Minister tell us if there is anything that he could organise in a brewery?” His gag writer John O’Farrell clearly had a winner here and Labour loyals roared with laughter while the Tory benches were down in the mouth. The brewery joke showed how a quip can have much more visible impact than a mere artillery of words.
Out of form, Cameron fell back on the hackneyed line, that Milliband had nothing to say about the deficit, that Labour would borrow more money, that Ed Balls was still shadow chancellor, that his party was a pawn to union “dinosaurs”. None of this succeeded in rallying the flagging Tory MPs.
Cameron’s timing was way off. He appeared not as relaxed at the Despatch Box as Milliband who now uses it like a prop. Towards the end of the session, when asked if he’d benefit from the millionaire’s tax cut, he leaned on this crutch– an imaginary letter from one Ed, who lives in Camden (“I am a millionaire I’m worried about my £2m house being hit by mansion tax. What should a champagne socialist like me do?”) alluding to Ed Milliband’s partner’s house in the borough of Camden. The gag finally roused the Tory benches even though for Cameron, for obvious reasons, it was unbecoming of his class politics.
Last week saw Cameron fending off jibes about balls and bull. News this year has been widely contaminated with horse meat, and the MP Nigel Dodds elicited laughs for his jape about the contamination of the Tory beef brand by a Lib-Dem horse. Cameron sniggered back that better coalition labelling may be the answer. Although later he added that the horsemeat hamburger scandal was no laughing matter in response to Anas Sarwar, the labour MP from Glasgow, who asked: “Does he share my concern that, if tested, many of his answers may contain 100% bull?”
While witticisms are enjoyed and pondered over by the country as an index of mood and where the fortunes of the parties and the leaders are going, it is also argued that turning the cameras on in Parliament in 1989 has been far from healthful for political culture. It transforms politicians into performers, the palaver runs on more than it should, and PMQs degenerate into an occasion for feeble jests and random railing: thirty minutes of elected representatives ululating while party leaders, a firm eye on prime-time telly, shoot off their sound bites.
For Tony Blair, notorious for his spin doctors, PMQs represent “the emotional, intellectual and political repository of all that is irrational”. The current Speaker, John Bercow, has called for “more scrutiny, more civility, less noise and less abuse masquerading as inquiry”. In 2010 he hammered PMQs and spouted unctuously “If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screech.” A Telegraph reader recently registered his embarrassment at the level to which he thinks the Mother of Parliament stands reduced: “I wish the TV cameras could be removed, because people from Hawaii to North Korea [cutting across India] must be watching these goings-on, nodding sagely to themselves and understanding why the UK is going down the tube as they watch.”
The Chamber was engineered to be adversarial and the opportunity to redesign it in 1943 after it was bombed was ditched. Churchill held that the old setup was responsible for Britain’s two-party system, which was the bedrock of parliamentary democracy: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. Architectural Review in 1931 described the Indian Lok Sabha Chambers designed by Sir Herbert Baker in these words: “It resembles a Spanish bull-ring, lying like a mill-wheel dropped accidentally on its side.” One wonders what impact the architecture has had, especially when watching scenes involving fisticuffs and fracas in the Lok Sabha.
Despite the baying, the bawling, and shouting in the six-round skirmish, the PMQs slot nevertheless helps set the media agenda and offers viewers and spectators alike a lively glimpse of the national cockpit that is Westminster’s Parliament.