Greasy Pole: Westminster Punch And Judy
“PMQs are another example of the corruption of politics”
When the MPs pack their sun cream and head off for their long summer break they may leave behind a number of people who are anxious that the country is uncared for, unprotected, ungoverned. There are others who may simply resent being deprived of their weekly fix of Prime Ministers Questions . These last have unusual tastes, suggesting that they will not be easily diverted onto a substitute, however proper. They will not be consoled by suckling on an ice cream, on the beach at Blackpool or Margate or Southwold, contentedly watching a Punch and Judy Show.
Prime Ministers Questions (or PMQs) is an institution promoted as evidence of the virility of British parliamentary democracy. As a regular, important part of House of Commons procedure it began in the 1950s, since when it has not been immune from the juggling and manoeuvring customary to our leaders in Westminster. In 1997 Tony Blair announced that New Labour would not only abolish poverty, introduce open government and run an ethical foreign policy but also replace the two 15 minute session of PMQs on Tuesday and Thursday with one of a half hour on Wednesday. The first question of each session must be directed at the Prime Minister, asking about arrangements for the day; parliamentary procedure then demands that the same person must reply to all other questions, whatever the subject. By this ruse the Prime Minister is prevented from avoiding inconvenient questions by passing them on to some inadequately briefed underling squirming nervously on the front bench.
The word “answer” must be allowed a loose interpretation in this context because what is recorded as an “answer” is very often little more than an evasion – perhaps a reply to a question which has not been asked – or a denial, or a straightforward lie. All of which is perfectly understandable for if the Prime Minister were to deal truthfully with questions about how their government was fumbling with the typical problems of capitalist society – like the current “credit crunch” – it would reveal how utterly ineffective they were. And that is not supposed to be what PMQs is about.
More usually, far from being an opportunity to openly examine a government’s record, PMQs is treated by the MPs as encouragement to behave like excessively unruly children. While a party leader is speaking there is a line of compliant sycophants on the bench behind, nodding like demented marionettes at what they wish us to believe are crucial and conclusive points of argument. The feeblest of jokes – like Vince Cable’s famous sneer about Gordon Brown transforming himself from Stalin to Mr. Bean – has the MPs in paroxysms of helpless laughter. The most ineffective reply to a question – like Brown endlessly reciting statistics which have been cooked up to show, in the face of cruel reality, that his government has us all wallowing in prosperity – will be bolstered by a thunder of approval.
When he became leader of his party in 2005 David Cameron promised that, as part of his drive to change the face of politics for the better, he would end the Punch and Judy aspect of PMQs. However as it dawned on him that Gordon Brown was not as formidable an opponent at the Despatch Box as he had feared he forgot his promise and emerged as an enthusiast participant in the knockabout. On a recent Today programme on Radio Four he admitted that “I will absolutely hold up my hands and say this is a promise I have not been able to deliver…The quieter tone I’d hoped we might be able to have, the better discussion of politics at Prime Minister’s Questions, doesn’t work”. He did not say whether breaking this promise, comparatively unimportant as it was, should encourage confidence that he will in future robustly keep his word on more vital matters, or whether the affair exposes him as a trickster no better than the ministers he so zestfully attacks.
Anyone who doubts that PMQs are little more than just another example of the corruption of politics need only consider the tradition of the Planted Question. These are asked, usually to a storm of jeering from the opposition and of approval from the government side, by a back bencher who has an assurance that their compliance will not exactly damage their promotion prospects. A typical style would be “Would my Right Honourable Friend (that’s the Prime Minister) agree that in spite of what the brainless rabble on the other side think this is the most caring, competent and effective government this country has ever…” A particularly instructive example was in July, when Richard Burden, MP for Birmingham Northfield – who is not famous for toeing the party line – got dutifully to his feet to ask whether Britain’s current problems are not caused by economic contamination from abroad. The resultant protests were so noisy that the Speaker told Burden to shut up before he had finished. This snub did not prevent Gordon Brown answering the partial “question”, although he might not have been able to hear it. Eagerly joining the Punch and Judy show he had promised to abolish, Cameron cuttingly commented that “You don’t have to finish a planted question to get a planted answer” – which ignored the fact that in the past Tory governments were happy to use the same deception.
No part of our lives can be untouched by the corruption bred into the property basis and the class relationships of capitalism. The politics of the system, played out by the parties in the seats of government, are immutably shaped by it. At times this corruption is so blatant that it almost seems the only proper response is outraged, incredulous laughter. Just as it is when we watch Mr. Punch beating up Judy. Except that that is just a bit of harmless fun at the seaside.