PMQs are back today: the weekly reset of Britain’s political clock happens every Parliamentary Wednesday at midday when Lindsey Hoyle bellows out ‘Questions to the Prime Minister!’. Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer will have spent many hours with their teams strategising their approach for what is frankly an artificial joust lasting ten minutes. It is reasonable to ask how we got here and what we get from it and the insider guide Punch and Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton is essential reading.
Hazarika and Hamilton point out that PMQs is actually quite new: in its current format it dates back to 1997 although its rhythms date back to 1961. It is also quite dependent on its participants: Margaret Thatcher used it as a way to increase her knowledge across Whitehall, William Hague used to forego some of his allotted questions to keep Tony Blair on his toes. David Cameron had years of experience in preparing Conservative leaders for their questions: he was thoroughly prepared for it. Jeremy Corbyn’s team realised just how social media friendly the soundbites could be, even if his battles with Theresa May were not thought to be classic encounters.
‘Thought to be classic encounters’ is the point, as there are many audiences. The millions watching the Six o’clock news (or on C-SPAN!). The pundits and the analysts for whom PMQs provides plenty to dissect. The partisans on either side for whom a good performance by their guy can be a morale-booster. Those around the government who can brush off a turbulent week (or summer) with the idea that PMQs has possibly drawn a line under an issue.
Hamilton and Hazarika set out how preparing for PMQs is both science and art. Art arises because of the performative nature of the thing within the (pre-COVID) packed and noisy chamber. It’s indicative of PMQs that Johnson’s performances were thought to be weaker without a team of hecklers backing him up and shouting Starmer down. And it’s probably the ‘art’ part of it that gives rise to the idea of PMQs as ‘Punch and Judy politics’. There’s a rather good quote from Andy McSmith about John Smith ‘turning this way and that, with a finger raised’, in control of the despatch box.
The science, or at least, the strategy, is more interesting. Starmer’s approach is clearly meant to unsettle Johnson but is more clearly part of the Labour leadership’s attempts to detoxify the party’s brand and show that it is ‘under new management’. Such an approach is intended to reap results but over a matter of months. But Punch and Judy Politics tells us that strategising can be even longer-term: Cameron’s strategy against Blair was designed to fit his long-term expectation that he would have to fight Gordon Brown: he defined himself against his future foe rather than the then-current prime minister.
The exchanges between Johnson, Starmer and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford might be killer, but even if some other questions raise important issues, there’s an awful lot of filler, with sycophantic questions from backbenchers that are designed to help the prime minister and/or run down the clock. It’s worth making the point that the prime minister comes into each encounter with enormous advantages: he always gets the last word over Starmer and Blackford so can deliver his key messages without being challenged (or fact checked), his backbenchers provide more noise than the opposition (not only because there are more of them), there’s very little comeback from not answering the question, and because the questions from backbenchers (of all parties) dominate. The value of PMQs comes from its status as the one place where the prime minister and the leader of the opposition go head to head to present their competing visions for government. Starmer and Blackford are the only MPs who actually get to have an exchange with Johnson; although a careless viewer might assume that Johnson faces questioning, no one but the other leaders get to challenge his answer.
I don’t know what will happen today at midday. But Hazarika and Hamilton’s book is an essential guide to the thinking that’s behind what we’ll see. We’ll end this review with their closing words, written in 2018 and possibly prophetic:
Bluster, self-belief and a nice turn of phrase can get you a long way in life – and in politics, as certain leading politicians have found. But if those qualities are not accompanied by a solid grasp of detail, then they can be exposed by a smart line of questioning in the House of Commons – especially by a smart line of six forensic questions…PMQs may not be at its best right now, but it remains one of the best places to find out what a politician is made of.