‘Would my right honorable friend agree with me…’
There are fewer depressing phrases uttered in Parliament, a signal that what is likely to follow isn’t a question but a mindless endorsement of party policy or a reference to an obscure constituency event that somehow reflects well on Government policy.
Cliche time, but Prime Minister’s Questions is Westminster’s set-piece political event, when the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition trade blows roared on by squawking, cheering – sometimes moo-ing – backbenchers.
Trouble is, it’s rubbish. Really dire. Dreadful stuff and a poor reflection of the good work, particularly around scrutiny and checks and balances, that the Houses of Parliament actually do.
Added to which, outside of the Westminster bubble, it doesn’t matter. Whisper it, but no-one is really watching. Most normal people never see it, only a small minority regularly watch. The excellent Isabel Hardman makes that point here.
Only political nerds like me watch the whole thing – and even we think it is desperate viewing, a 40 minute advert for why people tend to dislike politicians.
I’m writing this after a particularly eye-gougingly bad exchange between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn’t ‘incr-edi-ble.’ In fact, the exact opposite. I seriously recommend you avoid it, but here’s the highlights if you want to go start a revolution.
But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this bad. The basic principle of the most powerful elected official in the land coming to explain herself to representatives of the people once a week is a good one. Here are a few radical, but achievable, ideas on how it could be improved.
1. Voice of the People
There’s no reason why PMQs couldn’t be opened up to members of the public as well. In a 40 minute session there could be three moderated questions, with follow ups, chosen by an independent panel. These questions would set the agenda before a return to the traditional running order, opposition, followed by other party leaders and then backbenchers.
Famously, Jeremy Corbyn tried, and later abandoned, this ‘voice of the people’ approach. However, put in a neutral, non-party, context it could be interesting.
2. Live Fact Checking
Every time PM or opposition makes a claim, fact-check live – the speaker might interrupt to provide clarification – and publish a succinct report afterwards via social media and on the parliament website. It might show up some of the more outlandish spending claims made by government and opposition.
3. Change the Time
Who, apart from nerds like me, is watching The Daily Politics at noon on a Wednesday? If you want to get more public involvement, move it to 5pm, giving something for the later TV news bulletins to get their teeth into.
4. Move it out of Westminster
Soon the Houses of Parliament will shut for years for an eye-wateringly expensive refurbishment. Despite what security staff and others might tell you, there is nothing to stop PMQs and most of parliament taking place outside London. I don’t care if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clash about social care spending in a community center in Solihull. It would do them both good and taking MPs out of their usual tribal environment might help the quality of the exchanges.
5. Proper sanctions for badly behaved MPs
I understand that people get passionate, and I don’t want to turn PMQs into a dry policy debate. But some of the barracking, name-calling and general silliness demeans the entire event. Interestingly, this rowdiness – along with PMQs itself – is a relatively modern phenomenon. This would improve if MPs were named by the speaker and given a yellow card warning before being excluded from the following week’s session. Constituency parties might also be encouraged to have a word with representatives who regularly cross the line.
6. Separate Sessions for UK Nations
The current PM is a firm believer in the Union, but non-English parties get sidelined at PMQs, despite the SNP being allowed to ask two questions. What about getting the PM to return to the house for a second session exclusively for Plaid, SNP, Ulster Unionists? Or, even better, once a term, get the Prime Minister to travel to national assemblies to take questions from representatives.
A version of this blog post also appeared in The Birmingham Press