So Ed Miliband wants PMQs to be reformed, and partly replaced by public questioning of the PM. He’s not wrong. Although Prime Minister’s Questions are much loved by the party faithful and by the commentariat, the public increasingly see PMQs as embodying all that’s worst in our politics. The planted questions, the constant barracking and the over-partisan nature mean that there is, in reality, less scrutiny of the government than is conducted by select committees. We’re told it’s great theatre and sometimes it is, but we don’t expect leaders in other areas of our lives to perform in the same way and with good reason. Meanwhile the coverage is often facile and reduced to football-like scorecards in which what was actually said in the Commons is less important than the wider narrative that the commentator wanted to express in the first place. As a result the public think that this half hour joust (of which they probably see only the five minutes or so involving the party leaders) represents the Commons at work. If I were an MP, I’d be appalled that my heavy working week was being misrepresented in that way.
But if you listen to David Cameron, you’d think it was the backbenchers who want it like this. When he became Tory leader, Cameron said he thought PMQs could be less partisan. But he very quickly got the better of Gordon Brown in the chamber and got more aggressive as he got more confident. Now he says that it’s as it should be. A strong performance by the PM can rally the troops and is good for party management.
Ed Miliband has tried a couple of times already to change the nature of his questioning. There were a couple of sessions earlier this year when the tone was very different – and, of course, whenever war is on the agenda you can expect both Miliband and Cameron to behave like statesmen. The commentariat yawned and Miliband’s own backbenchers became restless, wanting their leader to rip shreds out of his opponent. But as MPs move away from the Westminster goldfish bowl and spend their summer out in the real world they will have time to consider whether bland references to tradition or spectacle are really working in their interest.
Whether Miliband himself will be bolstered by this move is difficult to predict. If he were regularly seen as ‘beating’ Cameron in the current set up, then the move would come from a position of strength, whereas the Miliband brand is currently generally regarded as weak. So he will have to work hard to avoid his opponents dismissing this move as a ‘loser’s charter’.
On the other hand, where Miliband has found decent traction is when he has attacked vested interests and the status quo, whether that’s Rupert Murdoch or Big Energy. If Labour’s spin team can produce yarn that’s consistent with that, Ed Miliband may yet reap the benefits of this manoeuvre.