By Mark Shephard
Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) attracts a high level of interest because it is the one procedure where the Prime Minister is expected to face questioning in the House of Commons by parliamentarians each week that parliament is sitting. However, it is often derided as an ineffective procedure. For example, in a 2015 radio interview Nick Clegg called it a ‘farce’ that should be ‘scrapped’ and research by the Hansard Society has revealed that large proportions of the public do not like the pantomime point-scoring of PMQs which is perceived to undermine the capacity for effective scrutiny and influence of the government. Even the current PM and the current leader of the largest opposition party don’t like the way it operates. When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 he called for an end to point-scoring ‘Punch and Judy’ politics. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party in 2015 he also wanted less theatre and called for more fact during the procedure.
However, when you cram partisans with deeply held and often divergent views on how best to run the country into a room too small to seat everybody elected to parliament, how realistic is it to expect that behaviour will change across all 650 MPs, or even hold out for the leaders making the promises themselves? Show me a partisan who does not have a passion for expressing a view or a particular perspective on an issue. If you are interested enough in politics to run for public office, then that passion will surface on occasion…and where better to do this than during a parliamentary procedure.
After all, legislatures fulfil a variety of functions and yet we often only focus on a few of these. If we ask ‘what is it that legislatures do?’ we typically think of the obvious things such as constituency representation, policy-making and scrutiny and influence. Moreover, there is a noticeable hierarchy concerning which of these functions we think are better than others, for example, making policy and scrutiny and influence are often held up as the gold standards of legislative functions by virtue of our desire to see these things wherever we look during parliamentary procedures.
However, it is important that legislatures do other things too. In observing legislatures, Robert Packenham developed a broader understanding of legislative functions including the function of tension release. Tensions build up in political systems and if procedures are not in place to deal with these then we have a problem. PMQs is a perfect procedure for dealing with aspects of tension release in the political system. Indeed, if we did not have PMQs we would have to invent it. It is surely better that we release tensions through robust oral arguments than with fists in the chamber and/or riots on the streets.
Other procedures, such as the Liaison Committee may be better-suited to fulfilling functions such as the scrutiny of the Prime Minister. However, this does not mean that PMQs cannot do scrutiny as well. For example, some of the bruising scrutiny over the Poll Tax and the Iraq War took place during PMQs (as well other places too). There is also the two faces of power thesis to consider as well. We often do not know if and when a procedure has impact. Perhaps the Government has not pursued a policy because of the fear of parliament, or even because of the fear of the bad publicity and backlash that might arise from having to defend a policy at PMQs. The lessons of the poll tax certainly come to mind here as Margaret Thatcher’s authority and grip on power was undermined week after week during her attempts to defend the misguided policy during PMQs.
Jeremy Corbyn may have been able to change the format of PMQs by asking questions on topics that members of the public find important, and he may be able to share these questions around more people on his own side, but one thing is certain, partisanship and tensions will be released during this procedure. Indeed, Cameron even berated Labour backbenchers for their interruptions during Corbyn’s very first PMQs under the professed new order. However, rather than being concerned about this, we should be grateful that tensions are released in the legislature through robust and rowdy argument, rather than with fists in the chamber and/or the streets. Besides, the public don’t like it rowdy, but they also don’t like it flat and dull either.
Dr Mark Shephard is Senior Lecturer in politics at the Department of Government, University of Strathclyde. He researches Scottish and British politics, social media, elite behaviour, legislatures, public opinion, parties and elections.