We saw the first instalment of Corbyn v Cameron in the Commons yesterday. The right-wing press likened Corbyn’s “consensual” approach, crowd sourcing the questions, to reducing Prime Minister’s Questions to a phone-in radio programme. A lot of the left-wing press engaged in the “oh didn’t he do ever so well” thing so reminiscent of the Ed Miliband era; a sort of talking him up in a patronising tone vibe.
So here’s my verdict: no one came over terribly badly yesterday. Which, if that’s what Corbyn was going for on his first time out, well done. There could have been worse results given the rocky start he’s had as leader. But I think an important question needs to be asked if we are to evaluate Corbyn in the Commons going forward: what are PMQs actually for? Why do we engage in the ritual?
We always hear from the commentariat about how much people don’t like what goes on at Prime Minister’s Questions; how it represents “Punch and Judy politics”. But the purpose of PMQs is straightforward and can be easily summarised: it is so that the opposition can hold the government to account. Every Wednesday that parliament is in session, the prime minister of the country has to answer six questions of the leader of the opposition’s choosing. And whatever the drawbacks of the format, I think this is a great thing.
No politician in an opposing party gets to ask the President of the United States six questions every week. Instead of moaning about it, I think we should be glad we live in a country where this kind of scrutiny is a matter of unwritten constitutional principle. Anyhow, let’s look at Corbyn’s approach of taking questions from the general public and see how well it does in light of this definition of what PMQs are there for.
For a start, the leader of the opposition has loads of advantages that a member of the public does not have. He/she will know the government’s programme in great detail and if there are any problems with any portion of it, will have the facts and figures to argue why and how it is a bad idea. No member of the public is going to have this to hand. So however relevant their questions might be generally, in terms of holding the government to account they will just never be at the vantage point the leader of the opposition will be. Also, the format will get tiresome for everyone, including the public.
Secondly, one of the most important aspects of PMQs is the follow up. You ask the prime minister a question and he tries to use circumlocution to dodge it. So you ask him/her the same question in a slightly different way (or even the same way, Paxman style). If the government has done something really wrong, it is hard to dodge the question six times.
Corbyn’s format doesn’t allow this. It’s one question and then another on a complete different topic, repeat. We saw how much this is going to worry Cameron yesterday: not at all. He can just play each question with a straight bat, knowing there will be no follow up question, the biggest problem to navigate being the need to remember the name of the member of public’s name correctly. The whole thing plays to Cameron’s strengths: a former PR man with ten years experience at PMQs on either side of the box, facing generalist questions that will inevitably not be about the thing Cameron wants to talk about the very least are going to suit him brilliantly. If PMQs becomes a dull spectacle, no one benefits more than David Cameron.
So I rephrase the question: is Jeremy Corbyn going to be able to hold the government to account? On the basis of yesterday, I fear not.
Sally Houghton says
I don’t think you can conclude on the basis of yesterday PMQs that Jeremy Corbyn is not able to hold the government to account. It was one set of PMQs and his first one as Labour leader. Jeremy had to survive yesterday (I choose that word because he already has seemingly the whole entire press against him) and survive he did. He has raised the issue that PMQs is not fit for purpose and unable to achieve what it set out to do, so is attempting reform and that alone is his first success. It will be one of many, that much I am sure.
You really think Prime Minister’s Questions allowed the opposition to hold the government to account|?
Corbyn has broken a stereotype, not become one. Cameron doesn’t know whether next week he will face 6 “people’s questions” 3 and three sharp follow-ups, 1 and a full-on factual assault. He also doesn’t know whether his answers will receive instant rebuttal on Twitter. Basically, Jeremy has changed PMQs into being called into the headmaster’s study to explain himself. You ain’t seen nothing yet!
sally houghton says
I said no, he was attempting reform so that one day PMQs could hold the PM to account.
You ain’t seen nothing yet
Well that much is certainly true.
Paul Holdsworth says
I’m holding judgement on this one, could he have gone in with the boot straight off, no!
I think he means what he says PMQ’s need to change, and this sort of public questioning is the first step into the realms of reality, I’m just waiting to see if he can hold the principal of questions but no personal quips, a bit like the late Tony Ben, issues not personalities!?