There are many, many things people hate about Westminster politics, but top of the list is the weekly joust between the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition across the despatch box every Wednesday at noon – Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).
It is so rowdy, badly behaved and at times childish that it makes a primary playground seem dignified. It’s the bear pit of British politics and it’s not going anywhere.
I have pretty unique first-hand experience of the terror and the thrill of preparing a political leader for the weekly duel as it was my job for many years when Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour party and prior to that when Harriet Harman stood in for Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister and she was Labour’s deputy leader. My Wednesday mornings were spent feeling sick with nerves with a knot in my stomach on behalf of my bosses. It’s one of the most stressful events to be involved with in politics – but also one of the most exciting and important. Which is why I have written a book about it with fellow former colleague Tom Hamilton called Punch and Judy Politics – An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions.
We thought it was a good title because almost every new political leader who has to face PMQs says that they want to change the tone. David Cameron was famously quoted as wanting to end “Punch and Judy Politics” when he first became leader of the Conservative party – which was ironic because he became the poster boy for bad behaviour and a bad temper at the despatch box. He famously told Labour MP Angela Eagle to “calm down dear” which was seen as a sexist, patronising put down ... because it was. Cameron was given the name “Flashman” based on a character known as a notorious bully.
But whether you like it or not, the noise, drama and theatre of PMQs is what makes it so interesting and such a unique part of our democracy. People from around the world admire a democracy which makes the most important person in politics answer any question from any politician from around the country in an arena which is intensely uncomfortable for them and where their precious egos can suffer the cruellest blow – mockery and people laughing at you. A bit like our press, we really don’t want our parliaments to be quiet, hushed and well behaved. If you crave a sanitised, polite type of politics then maybe the parliaments of Beijing or Pyongyang appeal to you. Also, so many American political colleagues and friends would do anything to see Donald Trump be subjected to a version of PMQs!
Democracy and politics should be passionate and spirited because there is so much at stake. Angela Eagle told us that she didn’t want PMQs to be low key and quiet for those reasons and that she was pleased she got under the skin of Cameron that day. She likened it to being on a football terrace where you are not only watching and supporting your team, you become part of the team by creating energy and, of course, noise.
Many people also rightly call out sexist behaviour at PMQs and there have been countless examples of women not being taken seriously in the chamber, especially when it was almost all men back in the day when Thatcher became Prime Minister. The first question she ever received at PMQs was from a Labour MP, Stanley Clinton Davis, who concluded with the admonition: “In replying to all questions, will she please not be too strident?” Could you ever imagine that being said to a male leader?
And in 2012, Sun on Sunday columnist Toby Young tweeted “Serious cleavage behind @Ed_Miliband’s head. Anyone know who it belongs to?” before announcing to a grateful world that it in fact belonged to Pamela Nash, the then MP for Airdrie who was also the baby of the house which makes the whole thing even more creepy.
But don’t be mistaken and think all women politicians hate PMQs. Former Times sketch writer Ann Treneman pointed out that some women made more noise than the men and loved getting stuck in. And indeed, the Scottish Parliament’s First Minister’s Questions when it had three female leaders was not a place for dainty, nice politics and it would be patronising to suggest it should have been. There is a great deal of heat and noise especially between Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson who are both impressive debaters and fierce about their political beliefs.
The influx of SNP MPs to Westminster after the 2015 general election also brought in a new aspect which upped the energy in the chamber – clapping. Speaker John Bercow tried to give them a row for doing it but I’m afraid everyone rather liked it and it looks like it’s here to stay. The new SNP MPs also tried unsuccessfully to oust a longstanding tradition of PMQs – Dennis Skinner. Skinner is probably Westminster’s most prolific heckler and many a Tory leader has suffered his relentless and unforgiving sledging and he always sits in the same seat – close enough to annoy the Prime Minister but far enough away from the Speaker to get caught. But the SNP tried to take his place and indeed the whole green bench when they arrived, and all hell broke loose. Skinner had to mobilise a wee army of elderly Labour MPs to come in super early to bag their seats. It got the stage where both sets of MPs would literally be running into the chamber to grab the equivalent of a sun-lounger on holiday. It was war. Eventually both sides saw sense and a deal was struck to power-share the sought-after bench and Skinner retained his seat, which I’m sure you’ll agree was in the national interest.
When we started writing the book we knew that PMQs was loved and loathed in equal measure, that the public hated all the jeering and that it was in many ways the worst shop window for Westminster politics – alienating, self-absorbed and inaccessible.
But we still believe it serves an important democratic function. For all its flaws, it is still the best reflection of the best and worst of British politics and a unique test for our political leaders. It allows MPs from all over the country to hold the Prime Minister to account including the Leader of the Opposition who wants her job and it forces her to be on top of everything which is happening across government. And anything which our senior politicians fear and loathe so much is surely worth keeping?
• Punch and Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton is available to buy tomorrow.