- 27 октября 2011, 23:00
Voters hate it, prime ministers dread it and journalists love it. PMQs is the half-hour session when the Commons comes to life, and it's 50 years old this week
Everyone hates prime minister's question time. At least they often say they do. How much they mean it is another matter. In its current form (more or less) PMQs has now survived 50 years, almost exactly as long as Private Eye, another great national institution routinely accused of not being what it used to be.
Backbench MPs arrive at Westminster determined not to join in the gladiatorial shouting match their constituents say they so dislike. Then they see old hands on the other side cheering their own leader for a good retort and loyalty kicks in. Voters? They deplore schoolboy antics, but complain whenever lapses into sobriety, let alone statesmanship, make PMQs look like an elite fix or, worse, boring.
The media? Its collective lip curls too. But (as with MPs) the 30-minute session at noon on Wednesdays is the one time in the week when watching the Commons chamber on TV monitors from their desks isn't enough. Reporters pile into the press gallery, 24/7 TV analyses the run of play like a Premier League grudge match. Editors wait for a good soundbite to enliven the six o'clock news.
As for the gladiators themselves, without exception they all claim to dislike it too, even Margaret Thatcher, who regularly made mincemeat of opponents across the dispatch box, but not all of them. Jim Callaghan, Labour's hugely experienced prime minister from 1976-1979, usually worsted the rookie opposition leader. But in doing so in more chauvinistic times "Sunny Jim" prompted the commentator Hugo Young – no Thatcher fan – to protest that he was offensively condescending.
Callaghan regarded what was then the twice-weekly session, at 3.15pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as "a complete waste of time". His predecessor, Harold Wilson, once master of the joust, fortified himself in advance with a brandy or two during his later years. Tony Blair, another PMQs champ in his prime, admitted at his final appearance in 2007 that he had always feared the Commons.
"This is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And, if it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes," Blair told MPs before they rose – Tory MPs included – and clapped him out of the chamber where he had dominated and infuriated for a decade in power.
As for Harold Macmillan, on the dusty pages of old volumes of Hansard his words still convey the unflappable urbanity which was the trademark style of "SuperMac". The shy, earnest young MP of the 1920s had been utterly transformed by private adversity (a fraught marriage), decades of hard work and growing self-confidence. PMQs, he once confided, still made him feel "physically sick". Yet this is what he wrote in his private diary a few weeks after succeeding the hopeless Sir Anthony Eden in the Westminster debacle that followed the collapse of Britain's last imperial venture, the Suez invasion of 1956:
"I didn't worry ... I didn't mind even losing a by-election or bother too much with the outside world, if you can once impress upon the House of Commons that the government is strong and the prime minister is in control ... then gradually it begins to go out into the country as the members go back to their constituencies."
In the age of a televised parliament, where PMQs is a niche market (very popular on the US cable channel CSpan) and TV panels instantly score the leaders' performance, that leisurely transmission mechanism has long gone. But an instant-death X Factor version is still recognisable. PMQs remains a test of character, stamina and grasp of policy, as well as a chance for voters to judge whether the party leaders understand their lives and are real human beings – not geeks or mere technocrats. Gordon Brown's inability to master quick-witted cut and thrust did him harm when he succeeded Blair. His evident scorn for David Cameron was not enough.
A ready wit, not dependent on scripted made-for-TV soundbites, is a bonus, but not compulsory, as Thatcher showed. Michael Foot and William Hague were both very witty opposition leaders. Foot was loved, Hague's brainpower respected by the colleagues. It was not enough. Voters gave them the thumbs-down well before their landslide defeats on polling day in 1983 and 2001.
So the occasion is fraught with ambiguity. Neil Kinnock, who had the unenviable task of facing Thatcher (far more condescending than Callaghan ever was) in her pomp for nine years, told the Guardian this week that, yes, "PMQs is over-rated, but it's permanent and part of the territory. It has to be done. In some ways our parliamentary democracy is more testing than others.''
Even a sceptic like Kinnock acknowledges that it requires "hours and hours of preparation", which means that the prime minister will know more detail about policy across Whitehall than might otherwise be the case. Thatcher, who once scornfully remarked that many of her EU colleagues barely knew where their parliaments were, prided herself in detailed knowledge – "from some local hospital to a great international issue".
"Each department was naturally expected to provide the facts and a possible reply on points that might arise. It was a good test of the alertness and efficiency of the cabinet minister in charge of the department whether information arrived late – or arrived at all; whether it was accurate, wrong, comprehensible or riddled with jargon," she wrote in her memoirs.
Few prime ministers have been as driven or domineering as Thatcher, none since Churchill in his wartime supremacy. Even during a war the pace was more leisurely than the globally wired world of 2011. Before the 1880s MPs asked questions of ministers without prior notice before the start of the daily agenda, with the PM treated no differently from any other minister.
As a gesture to Gladstone (then 72) his questions were placed at the end of the list in 1881 to allow him to arrive late. But that meant they were rarely reached. In 1904 they were answered only when questions – ever more were being asked – reached No 51; after 1940, they were addressed at No 45, a procedure that survived until 1953 when PMQs were restricted to Tuesdays and Thursdays only to assist the ailing Churchill (78). Even then several cabinet ministers were still expected to be around to answer questions every day as they had been 100 years before: old-fashioned accountability, but time-consuming. Nowadays each team does up to an hour once a month.
In the early days, exchanges were more succint. Back on 6 June 1904 the Tory philosopher-PM Arthur Balfour took four questions, mostly about imperial defence (Germany was menacing), but usually replied that it would serve "no public object" if he shared his thoughts; or that it would take a whole speech to reply; or that the war minister had already covered the point.
By June 1948, not much had changed. Then it was the opposition's deputy leader who asked Labour's prime minister, the famously terse Clement Attlee, for a statement on the London dock strike on five successive days – and got one too in brief exchanges over five or six minutes (today such an exchange would last half an hour).
It did not stop Labour's Bessie Braddock accusing Attlee of "complacency" over the strike. Rudeness and rowdiness is nothing new. MPs could be bitchy without the stimulus of TV, which makes for more noise and crafted soundbites but also has an inhibiting effect on more outrageous exhibitionism when MPs remember voters are watching. In 1961 another Labour troublemaker, Desmond Donnelly, rudely asked Macmillan if there had ever been another PM "so gorged on his own words". Yet when Tony Banks likened Hague to a foetus in the TV era most voters were not amused.
Backbenchers with a talent for PMQs are invaluable. Labour's Tam Dalyell's supplementary question once consisted of a devastating single word ("Why?") but the MP also had forensic skills, harrying Thatcher for months over the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano for months after the 1982 Falklands war. Leftwinger Dennis Skinner's timing for a witty heckle (waiting for a pause before shouting) could be brilliant. When Major first rose to take PMQs, Skinner shouted "Resign" before the new boy could utter a word. After Major later acquired lame-duck status Skinner would mutter: "Quack, quack." In opposition days, ambitious, articulate Tories such as Norman Tebbit and Alan Clark did the same service for Thatcher.
Personal grudges have always given an edge to PMQs. Macmillan despised Labour's then leader, Hugh Gaitskell, as a weak, priggish public school socialist. In return, Gaitskell thought him dishonest. But SuperMac admired Labour's next leader, the wily Harold Wilson, whose later demolition of Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) at PMQs paved the way for the left's return to power.
For his part, the grudge-minded Ted Heath despised Wilson as devious, just as Foot and Kinnock genuinely disliked Thatcher, who thought neither rival was up to the job. Blair thought the same about the Tory leaders he saw off: Hague, IDS and Michael Howard. Hague's wit and speed disconcerted him at first, but once he got a line on him (Hague had "good jokes, bad policies") Blair reasserted himself until Cameron arrived to tell him: "You were the future once."
By this time, the twice-weekly sessions at 3.15pm – instituted against some resistance in June 1961 and confirmed 50 years ago this week – had given way to Blair's once-weekly 30-minute joust at noon on Wednesdays, imposed without consultation. Alastair Campbell reckoned it saved the boss one-and-a-half days a week of prep. Though Blair denied it, most MPs think it makes a PM less accountable than before.
Kinnock (who found it awkward being aggressive towards an older woman) agrees. He also argues that the old convention that allowed an opposition leader three questions in each session (one to the Lib Dem leader) has wrongly morphed into six on Wednesdays, which is often too many. In the 60s opposition leaders often intervened only once – and late – in PMQs.
The fact is that like many things in Britain's fluid constitutional system, PMQs constantly adapts to new realities. Global affairs usually intrude less, social security and constituency worries feature more. So does Europe. Thatcher's cabinet feuds became a staple of PMQs and helped bring her down. So did Major's and the Blair-Brown feud. TV raises the stakes for both sides.
Similar fissures, magnified by rolling news in ways that would have baffled or alarmed Attlee or Balfour, may yet wreak havoc on the coalition. Cameron's critics have already noticed that beneath that urbane exterior (surely modelled on the Etonian Macmillan's style) there lurks a bullying tendency to resort to cheap shots ("Calm down, dear") when the going gets tough.
If voters come to see PMQs as a reprise of Flashman of the Bullingdon Club he may pay the familiar price of misjudging a loved-and-loathed national institution on which everyone has an opinion.