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In the News

Does PMQs serve any real purpose?

Mike McCartney

7th October 2020

The case of Boris Johnson.

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.

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 PMQs today it is patently obvious that the PM can't, or won't answer a direct question:

And this is what John Crace has to say in the Guardian about Johnson's latest appearance:

"...Labour had been happy enough to go along with the 10pm curfew initially because it had assumed the government must have some scientific evidence to back it up. Starmer’s mistake had been to treat the prime minister as a proper grown-up. So now he wanted to see the evidence before he continued to offer his support, as there was little sign the curfew was having the desired effect. If Johnson had the data to prove that things would have been even worse than they already were, then by all means publish it. We were in the grip of a pandemic and the government must be prepared to change course when necessary. Everyone made mistakes in a fast-moving situation; it was the failure to acknowledge these mistakes and react to them that was unforgivable.

Boris chuntered on, but by now no one was listening. Rather there was a general feeling of futility on both sides of the house. The Tories despair of a leader who gets weaker with each outing and no longer appears to really want the job. Nor do Labour take much satisfaction from Starmer out-thinking and out-performing Johnson. Partly because his victory is already priced in, but also because the stakes are too high. People are dying because of the decisions being taken. PMQs used to be part-pantomime, with moments of high comedy. Now it is just pure tragedy."


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.

As part of this discussion, this is a student reply, from Harry B in Year 12:

As an avid watcher of PMQs pretty religiously since 2014; I find much of Prime Ministers questions rather amusing with its bravado and noise, however, it is simply that, bravado and noise. Instead of answering serious questions which disgruntled opposition MPs want to ask on behalf of their constituents, PMs over the years have simply given non answers, said they would give a written response or simply respond with a witty pun. Whilst funny, these witty puns produce many a cheep laugh, they belong more on a school playground than in the UK's main legislative chamber, a place that is supposed to install confidence in the entire nation. It is not meant for an unrelenting 'diss battle' between leaders in which their 'homies' (their back benchers) make awfully puerile sounds that belong more on the Discovery Channel. Couple that with the obviously scripted friendly questions 'will my Rt Hon Friend not agree that the extra 6 million pounds worth of funding he has given to Airedale hospital is a clear indication of this governments plan to level up the NHS', which are more statements than questions, serving no purpose but to try and promote the governments agenda. PMQs intended purpose, to provide Mps with serious answers to serious questions has thus been extinguished. Most likely the television of PMQs in 1989 was the cause of this, as overly self-obsessed characters (no names Cameron) cared more about what they looked like to the cameras rather than providing a cohesive and thoughtful response. The televisation does not give any information to a watcher about what the PM is doing to tackle important issues. You would get more information by tuning into a Sunday morning interrogation by Andrew Marr or Sophie Ridge. Thus it serves only to embarrasses our parliament as a childlike establishment full of rowdy delinquents.

Mike McCartney

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

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