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Mick Temple’s Blog

QUESTION TIME

14-11-2008

David Cameron MP

By common consent, David Cameron wiped the floor with Gordon Brown during Prime Ministers Questions this week, when he raised the tragic death of Baby P. But Mick Temple questions the authenticity of the Tory leader's passion - and suggests that PMQs is little more than an elaborate pantomime.

The 1960s has got a lot to answer for. It wasn’t all miniskirts, Beatlemania and free love. Actually, I was a teenager in the sixties and in our house it was more cardigans, Sing Something Simple, and a quick grope behind the bike sheds at the secondary modern – if you were lucky. I never got beyond number 3 and that was on a scale of 1-100.

You might have thought Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons was a time-honoured tradition dating back to Walpole and Pitt, or even that old favourite of this column, Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, blessed with the immortal soubriquet of The Turf Macaroni.

But despite the archaic ritual – ‘what are the prime minister’s engagements’, ‘I refer the right honourable member to the answer I gave earlier’, ‘tonight Matthew, I will be Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ – it too was a product of that swinging decade, courtesy of Harold Macmillan.

PMQs generally pass without much comment. But this week, David Cameron pretended to get angry about the death of ‘Baby P’, jabbing the despatch box and scattering his papers. The PM accused him of playing party politics and Tory backbenchers worked up some synthetic indignation in support of their synthetic leader.

PMQs follow a path as predictable as a Jon Gaunt column. The PM avoids answering the question, he’s then accused of avoiding answering the question, he responds with a well-rehearsed (if poorly delivered) jibe at his opponent which reduces the Labour ranks to forced  hysterical mirth and is then accused once again of ducking the question.

This time, in an equally well-rehearsed (and equally poorly delivered) moment of merriment, the opposition leader produces a weak joke which generates yet more fake hilarity on the opposition benches.

The only contribution that gets both groups ‘splitting their sides’ is that delivered by Nick Clegg – or whoever happens to be LibDem leader that week.

PMQs encapsulate all that is wrong with the Commons. Rank-and-file MPs long ago gave up any pretence of holding the executive to account at any time. The ‘debate’ in PMQs is largely a series of macho posturings aimed at bolstering the leader’s position within his party and hopefully providing a snappy sound-bite or two for the evening news.

The electorate long ago ceased to care. Week after week, William Hague wiped the floor with Tony Blair and it made as much difference to his electability as if he’d worn a baseball cap and boasted of his youthful drinking exploits.

PMQs have had their day. They are as relevant to today’s audience as Simon Dee and Spangles.

For those of you interested, my new book The British Press has just been published by Open University Press. For full details click on this link

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