David Maddox: Leaders need new attitude to scrutiny

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FEW of them admit it in office but former inhabitants of 10 Downing Street make little secret of the fact that they hated the weekly grilling by MPs, Prime Minister’s Question Time, or PMQs as it is known in Westminster.

It is no surprise, really, given the baying and howling from MPs of both sides whilst the Prime Minister shouts out an answer or some timid backbencher tries to squeak out a question. The Commons can be an unforgiving place but it is particularly ruthless on a Wednesday between 12 and 12:30 (or 12:35 in what is now being thought of as “Speaker Bercow time”).

Tony Blair dreaded it, as did John Major. Gordon Brown has never really said what he thought of it but, given the way he was once skewered by Vince Cable’s “from Stalin to Mr Bean” line, he probably does not have fond memories.

So it comes as no surprise that the current incumbent of Number 10, David Cameron, appears to be doing all he can to avoid PMQs. In 2013, out 22 weeks, he will have only faced MPs a dozen times. To put it more starkly, in the past ten weeks there have only been two PMQs and Mr Cameron has only faced one of them.

Some clever time-tabling and a lot of recesses have helped the Prime Minister avoid having to prepare for random questions from around 25 MPs each week. When MPs take a break, the government has ensured that they break up on a Tuesday the day before PMQs, instead of going the extra day.

A fortnight ago, when Mr Cameron was away in the USA and Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took his place, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman made a point of the lack of times Mr Cameron has done PMQs recently. Yet there is a sense that the Labour leadership is complicit. At each PMQs, Labour leader Ed Miliband has six questions and his performance is also put under scrutiny and often criticised. So the Labour leader is probably as relieved to avoid the pressure-cooker of PMQs as Mr Cameron.

While our leading politicians may think it is a clever wheeze to avoid PMQs, the lack of them starves the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy of one its most important regular events.

MPs are selected at random for the list to ask the Prime Minister a question and even though many are given “helpful” questions to ask by their whips, they can and do ask anything and put the Prime Minister on the spot. It is also the best opportunity for the opposition publicly to take on the Prime Minister on the issue, or issues, of the week.

PMQs is also one of the best watched parliamentary events in the world. The UK audience on a Wednesday can hit 350,000 making it important for public accountability. The event is not just entertainment, although it often seems to pass for that, it is a vital part of British political machinery and its recent disdainful treatment by the political elite reflects badly on how they view their own accountability.