Book review: Punch and Judy Politics
Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton have done serious research on PMQs and produced one of this year's best books on politics.
This reviewer has been an MP for twenty-one years and almost, without fail, has attended Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday. As a newly elected Conservative MP in 1997 I was outraged that Blair decided to confiscate the old twice a week sessions to one lasting half an hour. And now two decades later we accept a PMQs like that but one which the Speaker has stretched to nearly fifty minutes – ostensibly to allow more backbenchers to ask questions which would otherwise be dominated by the joust between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister.
The Chamber of the House of Commons is quite small and on those occasions when full – PMQs and important debates – is claustrophobic with MPs standing and sitting in the stairwells. The noise can be deafening and the PM and the Leader of the Opposition face a bear pit and sometimes forget they can be heard because of the microphones. All Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition admit to their fear of the event and how much it dominates the whole week. Harold Macmillan admitted to feeling physically sick and even Blair got the shudders.
When I received the review copy of this book I thought it would be rather a light weight amusing account dependent on anecdotes. The title Punch and Judy Politics is taken form Cameron’s first appearance at PMQs with Blair when he said he wanted to get away from that. High minded aspiration which was damaged in practice.
The authors of this book have direct experience of helping out at PMQs under Labour. Ayesha Hazarika was an adviser to Brown, Harman and Miliband and Tom Hamilton to Miliband, Harman and Corbyn. They have undertaken serious research on the origins and history of PMQs and interviewed leading participants including Bercow, Blair, Kinnock, Miliband, Hague and Cameron, as well as those on the teams including Alistair Campbell, Danny Finkelstein, Bruce Grocott, George Osborne and John Whittingdale.
Punch and Judy may look like a specialist volume, suitable for political anoraks, but this reviewer believes it is one of the best books on politics to be published this year. Any MP or political journalist should read it to understand how important PMQs are in the lives of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and for those MPs down to ask questions. Since PMQs were televised they are a cult showing in many countries.
As the authors write in their introduction, “PMQs is dangerous, and it carries a potential for success or failure that few other moments in a political leader’s week can match”. As William Hague explains after the landslide defeat in 1997 Blair and Labour dominated politics and the only weapon he had at his disposal was his verbal ability at PMQs. Duncan Smith and Gordon Brown struggled to dominate the Chamber and Duncan Smith’s inability at the despatch box was one of the important reasons he lost his confidence of his parliamentary colleagues.
PMQs as it now exists is a product of evolution, not intelligent design. Fifty years ago or more the PM did not necessarily answer all questions which were dealt with by departmental ministers, and John Smith was the first Leader of the Opposition to take the maximum number of question allowed. The sub-text of all questions in the leaders exchanges at PMQs is “Who should be running the country : you or me?” The subtext of all of the Prime Minister’s answers is “I should be running the country, not you”, and then the content of those answers – their substance, rhetoric and political attack – as well as the delivery of those answers, is what either backs up or undermines that sub text.
In Punch and Judy Politics the authors show the differences between the way the Leaders approach PMQs, their ability to think on their feet and to use humour and devastating facts to humbug the other side. They go into considerable detail on how the Leaders prepare for PMQs, and claim, rightly, that for the Prime Minister, the demands made on departments and agencies for information an answers is a form of check on government. For the Leader of the Opposition it is finding the right subject matter to cover. But it is not just a question of the factual evidence, but the supporting teams role play the other side – George Osborne was especially good at this. The Leaders by Sunday before PMQs are already thinking about it and certainly both Blair and Cameron liked quiet time before the event to work through question and answers in their own style.
MPs are the chorus and provide helpful questions – the whips are always wanting to give such questions to potential speakers, and some can be quite cringe making;. Some of the best questions are not the explosive rants of the likes of Dennis Skinner but the short incisive questions of a dozen words form the likes of Michael Spicer.
Success or failure at one PMQs is not enough to establish or ruin a reputation, but over many months establishes a pattern that can make the political weather.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.