“And we need to change, and we will change, the way we behave. I’m fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing.”
David Cameron’s Conservative victory speech, December 2005.
It’s over a decade since Tony Blair left Downing Street and forewent the weekly ordeal of Prime Ministers Questions. Yet wherever he is in the world he still “feels a cold chill” at 11:57am on a Wednesday.
For Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, their task was just as chilling: to prepare the “I can’t win on image” Ed Miliband for his weekly battle with David Cameron. Their experience motivated them to write Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, with contributions from the key players of the past decade – Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, David Cameron, William Hague and George Osborne.
For a subject that takes up so much of a Prime Minister’s time – Blair calculated that John Major spent two days a week on preparation – it remains remarkably under discussed within the world of the political autobiography. We now have the definitive guide.
The Only Place To Be
For the public, PMQs is both loved and despised in equal measure. The jeering is condemned as childish and amateurish, whilst the periods of consensus are dismissed as boring for the TV audience. For the leaders of the main political parties it is an endurance. Tony Blair was speaking for most when he said it’s “the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowelmoving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question.”
This is surprising when you think about it. If politics is a mere game played by politicians that are ‘egocentric’, ‘narcissistic’ and ‘failed rockstars’, then the weekly joust should be the perfect arena to inflate and cultivate an MP’s ego. George Osborne is one politician who seems to thrive in the environment and provides the most original insight in Punch and Judy Politics. Osborne admits that preparing for PMQs “was clearly the only place to be, even as Chancellor.” Osborne was drafted in to help William Hague when he was just 29 years of age and the experience proved to be good grounding for him. By 2001, when IDS had took the reigns, Osborne, David Cameron and Boris Johnson formed the PMQs prep team. In a sign of things to come, Osborne admits that Johnson didn’t take it too seriously and “would always try to slip out of the room” to finish editing The Spectator.
Osborne used PMQs as an opportunity to maximise his own political skills. He recounts that from 1994 to 2017, he never left office – meaning he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of every PMQs. He admits that even as chancellor: “I read everything Ed Miliband and Ed Balls said, so I knew.” He became a savvy Commons performer, best exemplified in his quick riposte to John McDonnell in 2015 about his ‘little red book’ being his own personal signed copy. It remains to be seen how he would have performed in the hot-seat of PMQs.
For others it has proven more difficult; Kinnock often ‘mis-judged’ the moment; IDS struggled to win the support of his own side and Miliband seemed relieved just to survive another week. It was equally as tortuous for Gordon Brown. Fears can be heightened in the PMQs ‘bear pit’ for a leader losing control. Brown’s tenure took a huge hit when he ‘dithered’ over calling an election and Cameron capitalised: “The question is: can we believe anything the prime minister says?”…You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you were going to win it.” It set the tone for a torrid three years, from which Brown – and the Labour Party – have never truly recovered.
It begs the question of how important the process is for opposition leaders. The setting certainly adds the element of theatrics, which – when used effectively – can enhance the perception of the prime minister. Take Tony Blair’s retort to John Major: “I lead my party, he follows his,” and Vincent Cable’s “From Stalin to Mr Bean” description of Gordon Brown. These comments would have been perfect soundbite for any age – but they particularly suit the face-to-face combative nature of PMQs. Had they been repeated on the Andrew Marr Show they wouldn’t have had the same effect.
PMQs also gives a new leader an opportunity to pitch themselves to the public. Historically, leaders begin their reign by by defining themselves as the new consensus. Ed Miliband went for “I agree with the Prime Minister, why doesn’t he?” while David Cameron knocked Blair off his feet with his put-down: “I want to talk about the future…He was the future once.” Blair later wrote that he knew he was up against a much tougher Tory opponent. Even Michael Howard hit the ground running with his line: “This grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school boy.”
Yet it is under the guise of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn that PMQs has reached a stalemate. Reading Punch and Judy, the amount of effort put into each question – with hours set aside mapping out the potential responses – already seems like a relic from a different political age. It is no longer important for the opposition to perform well in order to secure a positive 30 second segment on the evening news. Strategists now clip their questions/answers for their specific social media audience.
There was hope when Corbyn took the reigns that it could turn into a peoples PMQs. In opinion polls conducted in the first few weeks of his leadership, the number saying ‘PMQs was ‘too noisy and aggressive’ halved from 47% to 23%; The number saying ‘there was too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’ fell from 67% to 45%; and the proportion saying that ‘the MPs behave professionally’ doubled from 16% to 34%.
So why ditch the idea? Perhaps as David Cameron admits in Punch and Judy Politics, it was much easier to respond in this format and it allowed the prime minister off the hook. Punch and Judy Politics reminds us that PMQs is an ever-evolving process which has been adapted to suit the political actors of the day. Perhaps it is at its lowest-ebb because the actors involved are not comfortable in the setting. The book is packed full of insights on process; on how to build up your six arguments to scoring an open goal. For Corbyn, Hazarika and Hamilton urge him to ask questions rather than giving statements. Whilst it may look good on paper “PMQs is a joust, not a speech”. The future could be very different; the bookies favourites to be next party leaders – Boris Johnson and Emily Thornberry – offer up a more appetising and tantilsing prospect.
Indeed, it remains the best mechanism in holding our politicians to account. Ministers often avoid Andrew Neil, James O’Brien and the Today programme for fear of being destroyed. But our prime minister must turn up week after week – fully briefed and ready to answer the world. As David Cameron points out: “It puts the prime minister on the spot to the public, but it also puts the government on the spot to the prime minister — needing to know issues right across every department before coming to the House at 12 o’clock on a Wednesday is an important mechanism of accountability.” It’s why the bluster of a Donald Trump could never translate to the British political scene. He would be destroyed in the PMQs ‘bear pit’ within minutes. For that alone we should be thankful for our PMQs. Even if it is just ‘Punch and Judy politics’.
Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions Publisher: Biteback Publishing by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton available Biteback Store (£20.00)