Watching the farcical Prime Minister’s Questions today

It’s not my normal habit to watch Prime Minister’s Questions on TV. Not even sure why today of all days that I did watch.

What a day to choose to watch.

Theresa May’s words on the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy were well delivered, recovering some lost ground in her earlier failures on the subject. Jeremy Corbyn hit home with some choice comments on Boris Johnson’s leaked remarks, making it uncomfortable for both Mrs May and Boris.

The Prime Minister was on firmer ground explaining the contortions of Brexit voting and backstop arrangements, again committing the country to leaving the EU, single market, and customs union.

Then, absolute uproar. Ian Blackford MP, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, ensured his dismissal from the chamber by refusing to accept a ruling from the Speaker. On leaving the chamber, all of the SNP members followed him out of the chamber.

In my view the Speaker lost control of events. That he wasn’t able to respond to the developing situation without having the House of Commons clerk continually offer him advice, I thought showed a surprising lack of knowledge of procedure, about which he should know more than members.

Of the SNP’s tactics, a pretty amateurish debating strategy. You can only do this once, so it ought be on a phenomenally important point, and this one isn’t that. I have some sympathy with the SNP not getting a chance to speak in yesterday evening’s debates. But to come up with this pre-planned tactic at PMQ’s – to confect outrage at a perceived slight on the Scottish parliament – while then not recognising the offer of an almost immediate debate on their point by the Speaker, proves P. G Wodehouse’s famous quote,

It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.

PMQ’s analysis: Miliband falls short

Caught Prime Minister’s Questions today, the first for quite a while.

Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband strikes first with questions on Libya and William Hague, connecting them together in a theme of government incompetence. I’m not sure how the incompetence thing resonates with the populace, especially as it’s tough to lay on the government in only brief questions, with no detailed evidence. Cameron deflects the questions with assurance. Cameron marginally the winner.

Ed Miliband’s second set of questions are on the police job cuts. Each dispute each other’s figures. I’m pretty sure the country is behind a sensible review of police pay and conditions, and therefore see little mileage for Labour in arguing too hard against the proposals.

Miliband fails to ask a sixth question. Cameron ends with a flourish around Labour lack of policy.

Verdict; Miliband has improved, but not enough, and his question session ends rather limply. While Cameron, not an outright victor, ends on a surprising high note. Therefore the government backbenchers leave with a smile, while Labour backbenchers probably leave disappointed at what might have been.

Final note: The amusing bits were Ken Clarke trying, with difficulty, to do up his bottom shirt button with one hand, and Denis Skinner, bobbing up and down energetically to catch the Speaker’s eye, and towards the end, only managing to half raise himself, obviously realising that he wasn’t going to get chosen.

PMQ’s analysis: Not waving, but drowning

Wowee, a game changer of Prime Minister’s Questions, where the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, was so soundly trounced by David Cameron that there are already mutterings from Labour about how long Ed Miliband can last as Labour Leader.

PMQ’s was full of references to England’s bid to host the World Cup, which made for a lighter atmosphere.

Going back to Ed Miliband’s performance, while he was heroically weak and ineffective, it was by comparison to Cameron’s stellar performance that he was shown in such a poor light. Cameron was absolutely on top of all his briefs, shown by minimal use of his briefing notes, and wasn’t discomfited by Ed Miliband or any backbencher.

The commentariat talk about PMQ’s not affecting public perception of a party leader’s standing. I’m not so sure. While the general populace won’t watch PMQ’s, the quality of performance directly affects party morale and press commentary. Refer Peter Hoskin, Quentin Letts, Paul Waugh, and Simon Hoggart.

Here’s the final question from Ed Miliband and Cameron’s answer:

Edward Miliband:With that answer, it is no wonder that today we learn that the Foreign Secretary describes this gang as the “children of Thatcher”. It sounds just like the 1980s-out of touch with people up and down the country. Why does the Prime Minister not admit that he is complacent about the recovery and complacent about the people who will lose their jobs? And it is they who will pay the price.

The Prime Minister: Not waving, but drowning. My mother is still with us, so she is able to testify that what the right hon. Gentleman has just claimed is not literally true, but let me say this: I would rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown.

PMQ’s analysis: Cameron peerless

Just checked when last I wrote an analysis of Prime Minister’s Questions, it was back in July this year. Anyway, having a day working on some projects [emailing like crazy], I found time to watch the whole of today’s PMQ’s on my computer.

There’s not a huge lot to say, other than David Cameron is mightily impressive at the despatch box [read Hansard report]. Ed Miliband’s questions were on cancellation of funding for school sport partnerships, and the failure of the PM to meet his previously stated promise to ensure all ‘require banks to disclose the number of employees paid salary and bonuses of more than £1 million’.

A couple of tricky questions from the Labour leader. David Cameron handled them with accomplishment, while also delivering a few well-placed barbs that didn’t allow the Labour leader to leave the chamber on a happy note. 

What I did observe in Cameron’s answers was an ability to moderate his tone to reflect the questioner. If it’s Labour front bench, then it’s all guns blazing. Yet, if the question is from a backbencher, then it’s respectful consideration and desire to be helpful, all delivered sotto voce. I hope he keeps doing this. Generous recognition of the role of backbench MP’s shows a respect for parliamentarians, whomever they may be.

If you watch a repeat of the programme – HERE – just look at the careful attention that Cameron gives to the ‘Beast of Bolsover’ Denis Skinners’s question.

PMQ’s analysis: Clegg confident

I managed to catch Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday before having to dash off to a meeting.

There were high expectations on how Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, would perform. He was pitted against Labour’s old warhorse Jack Straw. As Jerry Hayes splendidly writes, the omens were not good for Nick Clegg.

Well, well. What a turnabout. Jack Straw was a rambling wreck of himself of old, yet still well-turned out in double-breasted suit, which merely seemed to accentuate that’s all that was left of him, a veneer of importance.

Let’s get to Nick Clegg. He was polished, confident, well-briefed, amusing, and even managed an edgy self-defining comment about the illegality of the Iraq war. If Labour think that they can prise apart this coalition, then they’re going to have to work a darn sight harder than Jack Straw did.

Political commentator’s and Labour politicians seem to want to skewer Nick Clegg on some sort of mis-speak on the cancelled government hand-out for Sheffield Forgemasters. Much as they both think that this will run and run. The public, in my view, aren’t interested. It’ll be one of those topics that interests political propellor-heads but no one else

Verdict in marks out of ten: Nick Clegg – 9; Jack Straw – 4; John Bercow – 3.

Shouldn’t have to mention the Speaker’s performance, but what an irritating personage he’s become. This was an end of term PMQ’s. The next one isn’t until September. Where’s the harm in a little boisterousness. Anodyne political debate is much more dangerous than a rowdy PMQ’s.

PMQ’s is best left untamed

Political nerd that I am, I find enjoyment and irritation in equal part in watching Prime Minister’s Questions. I’ve commented on PMQ’s a lot over the last three years, and I can’t improve on the views I’ve expressed previously,

“A number of commentator’s bemoan the aggression of PMQ’s, Iain Martin for one. I don’t agree. It’s our national political non-contact sport. Much to be prefered to the occasional fisticuffs of other parliaments. It’s election time, rumbustious politics is to expected.”

“As I say each time PMQ’s is a fractious as this, we shouldn’t get too precious about our democracy or Parliament. It’s healthy that it’s occasionally rumbustious. Better than sleepy and dormant.”

Funny to be quoting myself. Makes me feel sort of serious. Enough.

It seems our new Speaker, John Bercow, is matching the low expectations people have had of him. On Tuesday this week he delivered a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, in which he gave a critique of Prime Minister’s Questions.

It’s good that he’s thinking about how our parliament works. But, we, the public, don’t need to hear about his thoughts delivered outside of the Speaker’s Chair. In this week’s PMQ’s, Speaker Bercow ‘slapped down’ the Prime Minister when he was about to quote from the recently published political memoirs of Deborah Mattinson [HERE for the book]. PMQ’s is partly political theatre, and benefits from immediacy and hot political gossip and intrigue. Remove that and you can remove the energy and theatre of PMQ’s.

I’m not alone in this view. Here are some truly excellent contributions on the subject.

Finally, I can’t improve on this matchless last sentence from Lloyd Evans’ article on his view of John Bercow:

“This over-delicate, over-mighty and over-rated Speaker needs to be given some ear-plugs or better still the elbow. Bring back Betty.”

PMQ’s analysis: Cameron in command

Out for most of the day and World Cup footie in the evening, so have caught up with PMQ’s through BBC Democracy Live [Also available HERE].

Two things to note about this PMQ’s. One to discuss its content, but the other about the Speaker’s view of its purpose. I’ll address the second point in a separate blog post.

I imagine there are many still adjusting to the new look of PMQ’s, what with the LibDems and the Tories in coalition, and still no leader of the Labour Party, PMQ’s is very different. The one person who seems to have adapted most quickly is David Cameron. He seems made for the role of Prime Minister. As Sky News’ Joey Jones comments in his excellent PMQ’s analysis, David Cameron showed a “remarkable command of statistics without notes”.

Interestingly, three of the most media-savvy new Labour MP’s managed to get called to ask a question by the Speaker, Gloria del Piero, Rushanara Ali, and Chuka Umunna. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from these three MP’s in the future. I hope so because, as I’ve noted previously, the Labour party sorely needs new faces.

As to the overall result, I’m still of the opinion that marks out of 10 for performance isn’t quite appropriate, maybe later perhaps. However, my overall view is that David Cameron is the most commanding presence in the chamber, and that Harriet Harman would be more effective if she’d decided to enter the race for Labour leadership. It would have given her more edge to the exchanges with the Prime Minister.

PMQ’s analysis: Cameron suprisingly angry

I watched Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. There were many things to note, not least Cameron’s sweeping away of detailed questions from Harriet Harman without a direct answer. Obviously, the England game intervened, along with an evening meeting, before I could post my observations on PMQ’s.

I can’t improve on the observations of Benedict Brogan in his Daily Telegraph blog. He says exactly what I observed, and was intending to write. Better to read Ben’s words, than mine:

“Two things struck me about PMQs earlier. First was David Cameron’s colouring. It was not quite orange, but he stood out from those around him with a complexion that was certainly healthy but somehow didn’t quite match the life of long hours and office meetings that must be his lot these days. Has he been sailing on the quiet? Gardening?

The other was his capacity for anger and indignation. His voice had the beginnings of a hoarseness to it that gave it added gravity. Coupled with some noisy thumping and jabbing of the Dispatch Box, it gave added fire to his performance. The PM has not shaken off the indignation of his first outing at Labour’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of the mess or its role in creating it.

The line about “one party got us into this mess, two parties are working together to get us out of it” was the soundbite, and I also liked his “Greekanomics” jibe. “Members opposite have got to start getting serious about the task we face,” he said, his annoyance at yet another Opposition question about “Tory cuts” riling him.  Another thought: it’s worth noting both Mr Cameron’s easy courtesy, as when he makes  a point of congratulating new members on each side on their election, and his adaptibility to questions. It’s clear that on all those factory visits, classroom meetings and hospital tours he has paid attention.”

A couple of final observations from me. First, our MP, Michael Gove, is a right fidget. Unlike all of his colleagues on the front bench, Michael gave a wide range of facial expressions and hand movements, including an occasional nod and smile to unseen people in the gallery above him. Lastly, and this is about the Labour front bench. How strange not to see any of the Labour leadership contenders, and then only at the very margins of the TV camera’s view.

PMQ’s analysis: Cameron commanding

Can’t believe that the last time I posted an analysis of Prime Minister’s Questions was on April 7th. Such a lot has changed since then.

The biggest change in Prime Minister’s Questions is that David Cameron answers questions. What a pleasing change from the Gordon Brown era. By the way, where is Gordon Brown? What’s the point of being an MP if you don’t turn up to Parliament. I seem to remember that Margaret Thatcher occupied the back benches for a while.

Onwards to the analysis. While Cameron was commanding, the biggest smile came from Harriet Harman when she talked about CCTV , and how she’d talked to Theresa about it. Not apparently Theresa May, the Home Secretary, but Theresa from a housing estate in her constituency. Big chuckles all round, and delivered in an appealing self-deprecating way.

While Harriet comprehensively lost the argument with Cameron over electoral registration and boundary changes, she, never the less, put in a good performance.

The Football Connection: For footie fans it was good to see Cameron agree to have the flag of England fly over Downing Street while England are in the World Cup. The other point I noted was that in wishing England success in the World Cup, Cameron wished Capello and the team good luck. Nice that no one player was picked out, but that Capello was mentioned. 

Marks out 10, not easy when the opposition is not fielding its first team, and no really tough questions or answers. Cameron: oozing control and competence – 8 out 10; Harman: competent yet underwhelming – 7 out of 10. Odd not to have a Lib Dem to mark.

PMQ’s analysis: Brown inflexible

I’ve watched Prime Minister’s Questions, the last one in this parliament.

I’m surprised that it was not more rowdy than it appeared. Gordon Brown appeared leaden and inflexible and predictable in his responses to Cameron’s questions.

Clever, clever politics from Cameron to open his questions on cuts to the helicopter budget. Gordon Brown’s letter to the Iraq Inquiry correcting his evidence to them on defence spending, meant an uncomfortable time for Brown in answering Cameron. He never really recovered from the haltingly way he began his reply.

Cameron’s follow-up questions on new support from business on the cancellation of a planned Labour tax rise in National Insurance, further discomfited Brown. Especially so, when one of the businessmen in on Brown’s business advisory panel. Brown’s arguments on the NI tax cancellation doesn’t have traction. 

Nick Clegg’s questions were theatrical. Just as Gordon Brown said of Clegg’s second question, it was difficult to detect any question at all

My marks out of 10. Brown: tired looking and inflexible – 4, Cameron: charged-up and forceful – 8, Clegg: theatrical – 4