‘Order, Mr Quinn! Recover your composure man! You’re wholly out of control!’
Was this heard on a rugby pitch or in a boxing ring? No, it was said by the Speaker of the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions. Another Wednesday lunchtime, another chance for our elected members to shout at each other in the name of democracy. There aren’t many careers where the sign of having made it to the top is the chance to patronise and shout down everyone sitting opposite you. That’s the way it works at Westminster though, and it keeps the Speaker busy trying to maintain order.
Conservative MP Cheryl Murray had the honour of asking the first question, taken directly from Chapter One of The MP’s Big Book of Questions. A variation on the Isn’t it about time the party opposite admitted they were wrong about something and apologised? that Prime Ministers love. It doesn’t really matter what the subject was, Cameron was able to dispatch it to the boundary with a My honourable friend is absolutely right...In cricket it would have been called a loosener. The crux of the question and the PM’s response – Would Edward Milliband apologise for claiming Tory policy would destroy1 million jobs, when in fact 1 million jobs have been created?
Unsurprisingly, no he wouldn’t. To great cheers he tried to speak, but the noise was too much for him to be heard. The speaker berated the Prime Ministers Parliamentary Private Secretary Gavin Williamson in no uncertain terms. ‘Can I just say to the Prime Minister’s PPS, his role is to nod his head in the appropriate places and to fetch and carry notes. No noise required.’
When he was able to speak Milliband tried to paint the government energy policy as benefiting the energy companies. But owing to the noise from the MPs the Speaker was soon on his feet again. ‘The question must be heard and the answers must be heard, however long it takes. Some people need to get used to the fact that that’s what the public would like to see from the House of Commons.’
The PM was soon on the offensive, telling how the Labour leader had switched his own energy suppliers and was therefore following Tory policy. Milliband shook his head as though unable to believe what he was hearing, before standing up and delivering a planned line, that the only thing that people need to do is ‘switch the Prime Minister’, before calling him the unofficial spokesman for the energy companies. Many of his rehearsed lines appear forced, but that name worked and may stick. As may Cameron’s now familiar riposte, It’s the same old Labour.
Nick Clegg looks uncomfortable at PMQs. As deputy Prime Minister he sits next to the PM, but as leader of the Lib Dems he knows that after the next election he may well be trying to do a deal with Labour. That makes it hard to jeer along with the Tory MPs.
The most frustrating part of PMQs is the way that no one answers a question. No one even attempts it. The end of a question is merely the chance for the other leader to stand up and ignore completely what has just been said. The best example this week came from Milliband, but it happens with all leaders.
David Cameron finished an answer with the question’…if he wants a price freeze why has he just voted for a price rise?’
To which Milliband answered, ‘It’s just so hard to keep up with this Prime Minister on Green levies, isn’t it?’
A cacophony of sound continued, forcing the Speaker to his feet again. ‘Members must try to recover some semblance of calm, it would be good for their health, beneficial to their well being, they must try to grow up, even after the age of sixty!’
It was time, Milliband said for the Prime Minister to stop acting like a PR man for the energy companies. The PM retorted that ‘Britain deserves better than that lot.’
Does Britain deserve better than PMQs? Is it time to retire the idea of Prime Minister’s Questions? What is actually gained from a series of the insults and unanswered questions? I might ask my MP to ask the Prime Minister next Wednesday.
It does seem a ridiculous ritual. Why can’t they behave properly? Or is it like a safety valve? I still enjoy it for occasional bursts of passion like Denis Skinner telling how a very ill constituent fell foul of government benefit harassment and died before it could be sorted out. It’s always packed , unlike often during serious debates. Must be all in case they are shown on tv.?