Jeremy Corbyn’s first outing in the bear pit of Prime Minister’s questions went better than either man could have hoped for. Corbyn, a lousy speaker and poor debater got off lightly, and the Prime Minister avoided the obvious banana-skin of publicly beating-up a careworn old geography teacher who accidentally found himself at the dispatch box while looking for some sandwiches.
There are few more tiresome tropes in politics that PMQs are a “national embarrassment”, with all the jeering and petty tribal point-scoring. But it is just about the only debate people can be bothered to watch. If you’re interested in an earnest debate about the issues, you can see everything live on the parliament channel, where the members who’ve taken the trouble to learn about a given issue turn up to craft and fine tune legislation. There are select committees where members scrutinise the business of Government, calling ministers and civil servants to account. Few bother.
PMQs however isn’t about the business of Government. It’s party-political. It’s designed to test the mettle of the Prime Minister under fire – tough forensic questions, not about the issue, but to play the man. Put the man under pressure, in public and see how he fares. It means the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition learns to handle pressure, and crucially the voters can see how he fares in the bear-pit, often weekly, for years before a general election. He’s out there in the manner of a Medieval king in front of his troops, meeting his opponent with the armies arrayed behind them. You find out which tribe is stronger, which is more unified and where the cracks might be. It tests the man as a leader, as a debater. Good at PMQs? Better able to stand up to Vladimir Putin in the great councils of the world.
The idea this is where you can forensically examine the Government’s record earnestly is like complaining Rugby’s too rough as England play Australia in a world cup final, declaring chess a better sport in world where physical prowess is no longer needed. You’ll have missed the point. And get de-bagged by the Exeter Agrics 3rd 15 and have a pint poured down your crevice into the bargain. And quite right too.
Every politician comes to the dispatch-box for the first time promising “a new politics”. I’ve little doubt that Demosthenes promised a new style of politics in the Ecclesia two and a half thousand years ago. But what Corbyn will find is instead of testing Cameron’s mettle, and demonstrating his own, this Consensual PMQs will allow Cameron to calmly state the Government position in front of the largest political audience in the country; and neither man is tested. Far from being more democratic, the public have less information about the vital character of the people they are auditioning to lead the country. Corbyn is not doing his job either as a party political warrior, or leader of the opposition testing the Prime minister.
If you think this new style of politics, a consensual, nice, quiet PMQs is an improvement on the old one, you’re a po-faced, sanctimonious bore, who’s simply ignorant of what PMQs is for. The reason Corbyn sought to change the rules, is because he’d be demolished under the “old politics”. He’s going to get demolished anyway, but he’s just spiked his own guns too. As for a “national embarrassment”: nonsense. The commons bear pit is held up as an example of proper scrutiny not of legislation, but the man too. Our top politicians are held to account by the legislature in a way few outside the westminster system are, and many envy us that.
(Not PMQs, Not “England” either, but the point remains. The Bear Pit has its uses).