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In the News

Another look at PMQs

Mike McCartney

24th June 2022

Johnson v Starmer (mkII?)

The case of Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer

First, a bit of background on different views on PMQs

  • Executive leaders from different parts of the world have gone on record as saying that they are relieved that they don't have to go through a weekly grilling by members of their legislature. Former President Bill Clinton has said as much. And there is no equivalent for the German Chancellor in the Bundestag, for example.
  • For many fans of PMQs they are seen as the high point of the parliamentary week, allowing the opposition a chance to try and catch the PM out with surprise questions, and have often led to heated debate. George Osborne, the former Chancellor, put forward the case for PMQs by stating that it is an occasion when Parliament is: ‘Asking the most powerful person in the country, the PM, to come once a week to account for his policies.’
  • Sceptics, on the other hand, would argue that the theory that PMs can be held to account by assembly members as a result of forensic examination at PMQs does not match reality. These sessions often achieve little of lasting worth since PMs often evade answering questions and focus instead on political point scoring. This is exemplified by one occasion in Blair’s second term, when the PM took it upon himself to give a run-down of his government’s achievements after 5 years in office, and this sounded more like a party political broadcast than a serious response.

I wrote about the relations between the leaders of Britain's two main parties back in October 2020 on this blog:

"So, looking at the incumbent of No 10 and his relationship with his opposite number as leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, it is clear that Keir Starmer has Boris Johnson on the ropes. If we take this short clip from PMQs9link now expired) today it is patently obvious that the PM can't, or won't answer a direct question.

One suspects that for FOB (fans of Boris) that his less than impressive performances at the Despatch Box won't matter a great deal. On the other hand it could be seen as a problem because the number of supporters (voters, party members, Tory backbenchers, and even members of his own Cabinet) the PM can count on is dwindling. But is PMQs a cause of that, or does it merely serve to reinforce the idea that the Johnson government has failed to get a grip on the Covid virus? Given that PMQs has never really generated any policy changes of lasting worth, I suspect it's the latter. Johnson may, as some have suggested, have been reduced to appearing like a wounded bear during his PMQ clashes with Starmer, but at most it will provoke more rumblings of discontent among Tory backbenchers about whether Johnson is fit to lead their party than a policy victory for the opposition party."

And now, here we are, almost two years down the line, and what can we say? Inside the Westminster bubble, it may seem like PMQs matters, and it occasionally makes good TV, but it isn't really significant. I used to say that others methods of executive scrutiny mattered more, but there are major questions about whether the legislature's role in that regard.

But some people still bang the drum about PMQ's place in the political landscape.

John Crace in the Guardian wrote yesterday about the latest clash in the Commons between Johnson and Starmer:

"But the Convict did have to face a revitalised Keir Starmer. In recent weeks, the Labour leader has seemed underpowered. As if his mind was elsewhere. But at Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions he was fully on it. Not all the gags landed, but then they didn’t need to. Johnson looked hopelessly out of his depth from the start. Powerless to defend his record. Not even the Tories now believe the Tory line that Labour is to blame for the rail strikes. More to the point, the public certainly seem to know where the fault lies."


So, at best, what goes on in the chamber during PMQs may reflect the political weather, they certainly don't make it.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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