This morning, you’ve probably heard about Ed Miliband’s latest Big Idea: a sort of public PMQs in which the PM fields Qs from normal voters rather than from Parliament. The New Statesman’s George Eaton is worried that Cameron will simply steal the idea and pass it off as his own.
My advice? Go on, Dave, steal away. In fact, I suggested that he do a public PMQs in a blog-post for this site last year. Here’s the text of my original post:
“Go on, Mr Cameron – scrap PMQs”, Peter Hoskin, 13th March 2013
It’s Wednesday again, and you know what that means: Prime Minister’s Questions at noon. Tweeters are readying their #pmqs hash-tags. Journalists are speculating as to what will be said. MPs are clearing their throats, better to cheer or jeer with. And, right about now, the PM himself will be preparing and preparing and preparing.
It’s the sort of thing that political nerds live for. But, speaking as one of those nerds myself, I’m growing rather tired of this weekly carnival. PMQs has never really delivered many great revelations, but now it seems more wearily predictable than ever. The variations on the themes of “more borrowing” and “too far, too fast”. The planted questions and scripted attacks. The phony applause and caterwauling. This may be fun political theatre, but it rarely casts its players in a flattering light.
That’s part of the reason why I think David Cameron should scrap PMQs. Trust in politics has – as I’ve written before – become a forgotten cause in this Parliament. It’s become forgotten to the point that our party leaders think it’s okay to spend half-an-hour each week – and many more hours of preparation time – shouting at each other. And what sum purpose does that serve?
Of course, MPs would complain that they have a right to hold the Prime Minister to account. They’d say that this is how British democracy works. And they would have a point – if only PMQs hadn’t become a subversion of its own form. Seldom do we hear the sort of question that Labour’s Siobhan McDonagh asked of the Prime Minister a month ago; an appeal for help for an ill constituent of hers. Too often, the ones that are asked call to mind that episode of The West Wing in which Josh Lyman takes over press briefing duties. The first question is about when the President last smoked a cigarette, to which Lyman responds: “Are you sure you want your one question to be that stupid?”
It would, to my mind, be better if the Prime Minister spoke directly to the public instead. He could replace PMQs with one of his PM Direct events or with a Clegg-style adio phone-in. He could even encourage the other party leaders to occupy their time likewise. “We spend enough time arguing among ourselves,” he might say, “we ought to spend more talking with voters.”
And, what’s more, this would satisfy some of the prescriptions contained within Stephan Shakespeare’s excellent presentation to the ConservativeHome conference on Saturday. It would, for starters, be a risk. And it would be a Prime Minister acting “for the people against the politicians”.
Besides, none of this is to say that PMQs couldn’t return in the near future. After a break, a spell of sobriety, it could be reinstated in a different form: more business-like, less theatrical, less all-consuming. The overlapping villages of Westminster and Twitter wouldn’t get so much of a kick out of it, but maybe that’s the point.