Brevity is the soul of wit. Shakespeare brilliantly gives this insight to the long-winded Polonius.
Today at Prime Minister’s Questions too many MPs channelled their inner Polonius.
Question after question was sententious and far too long, and the whole session lasted almost three-quarters of an hour, which is 50 per cent too much.
The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, did at one point cut Boris Johnson off, at a time when the Prime Minister had veered into a stream of abuse which had nothing to do with the question which had been put.
But reform has to start with the questioners. The briefer they are, the more conspicuous the Prime Minister’s evasions will be.
Sir Keir Starmer reminded the House of Johnson’s assurances at the last PMQs on 16th December that the measures then in force to deal with the pandemic were sufficient, and asked: “How did he get it so wrong?”
A good question, to which the Leader of the Opposition should have stuck, instead of which he began offering the House excessive quantities of evidence, of a kind which might be required at a criminal trial, or on some other parliamentary occasions, but which weighs PMQs down and runs the risk of making it unwatchable.
This half hour is, or should be, tabloid politics, with the accusations subbed down to witty headlines which demand witty replies.
“That just isn’t a good enough answer,” Sir Keir said at one point, but then changed the subject to food parcels, whereupon Johnson, with tabloid quickness and shamelessness, allied himself with Marcus Rashford, whom he praised for “doing quite an effective job” compared to the Leader of the Opposition.
Ian Blackford, for the SNP, asked some good questions about Scottish fishermen who cannot get their catch to market, but again he was far too long, which made the irrelevance of the PM’s replies less embarrassing.
The Queen pleads with Polonius to get to the point. Anyone who values PMQs as a spectacle – something the public might actually want to watch – must enter the same plea.