Book Review – Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions

This is a very intriguing book. When people see it, their first question is ‘how can you write a book about an event that is 30 minutes long?’ What the book does, however, is to show that the 30 minutes on a Wednesday afternoon is the tip of the iceberg:

“ PMQs is more than a question and answer session: when used properly, it is a vital tool of internal management for both government and opposition, helping to identify problems and weaknesses and to find solutions to them”

The book begins with a history of the evolution of PMQs. Like so much in British politics, it developed organically into what it is today. Since 1997, PMQs has been held at 12.00 on Wednesdays for 30 minutes (or longer at the Speaker’s discretion). Notably, this is the only time that the Prime Minister is held directly accountable to the peoples representatives in an ordinary parliamentary week. It is an important way to make the Prime Minister accountable to Parliament. However, the authors note that the development of PMQs go beyond this, they also make the government more accountable to the Prime Minister:

“ It extends Downing Street’s tentacles across Whitehall, giving it a legitimate pretext to know about everything that might be going wrong”

This is an extremely interesting point, but one that is demonstrable in any PMQs session, as the Prime Minister shows their understanding of the issues within their wide variety of policy areas they are responsible for.

Despite the incremental changes and developments to PMQs which the book covers in depth, the introduction of television cameras in 1989 has undoubtedly been one of the most significant changes. TV cameras widen the audience beyond the baying opposition and creeping backbenchers. The importance of the soundbite has become infinitely more important now that it might be picked played on the 10 O’Clock news. The television cameras did not just allow the public to look in, they also made Leaders and MPs aware that they had to look out. However, throughout the book the authors are keen to stress that there are actually relatively few memorable moments from PMQs. They stress that few knockout blows are landed in PMQs, normally, the best either side can hope for is a comfortable points victory. Of course, there are occasions that one side is mauled so badly in PMQs that it reverberates around Westminster. One that the book highlights is Tony Blair’s characterisation of John Major as ‘weak, weak, weak’:

Another, although not featured as prominently in the book, is David Cameron’s attack on Gordon Brown in 2007 from backing down from holding an early election:

The book looks in detail at the questions asked in PMQs and goes through the different tactics deployed in asking them. Do you ask all 6 on the same topic to hammer home your message or do you split them, to cover a broader set of issues? The question is not just part of that set-piece moment, it also sets the news agenda for that week.

An example is given of a line that Ed Miliband used in March 2013. The Conservatives under David Cameron had made a made a u-turn on the issue of minimum alcohol pricing. This was a minor issue in the grand scheme of politics that week. However, a well-deployed joke by Miliband placed it on the news agenda in the following days. Miliband asked:

“ In light of his u-turn on alcohol pricing, is there anything the Prime Minister could organise in a brewery?”

The book gives a number of excellent examples of how things have gone right and how things have gone disastrously wrong. The consideration of Jeremy Corbyn’s tactic of crowd-sourcing questions is particularly interesting. At the time his questioning technique seemed bland and monotonous to many. However, the authors point out that by using questions from the public he was automatically able to moderate Cameron’s response, after all, the PM can not be seen to openly attack a member of the public.

The authors make an excellent insight into the effectiveness of Corbyn’s questioning style

The essence and goal of this book is explaining that PMQs is so much more than 30 minutes of argument once per week. The book focuses heavily on the enormous preparation that goes into PMQs. Both sides have permanent teams working on PMQ preparation throughout the week, with focused meetings before each session. The book includes lots of anecdotes to support how seriously this preparation was taken. One of the most interesting is that the time that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, resigned before a PMQs only for Thatcher to ignore the issue until after she had finished preparing for PMQs.

Similarly, for the leader of the opposition, PMQs is essential. They do not have the power and prestige of the office of Prime Minister through which to promote their political brand. They point out that it is the one chance to make sure you influence the political narrative for the week. They quote George Osborne on this:

” If you fail, the Leader of the Opposition doesn’t really have many other opportunities during the week to correct that. A Prime Minister, there’ll always be a summit with the American President, there’ll always be something else going on”

As the book points out, leaders can sometimes be helped and hurt by the circumstances in which PMQs takes place. They note that Iain Duncan Smith became Leader of the Opposition after the attacks on 9/11 and on the biggest political issues of the next two years, the War on Terror, he was supporting the PM and political attacks were more difficult. This contrasts to Gordon Brown for whom the book suggests the financial crisis made more confident in PMQs saying “his confidence and sense of purpose was back” as he was on familiar territory following his period as Chancellor.

The authors point out that Gordon Brown was at his strongest in PMQs when his government was perhaps at its weakest.

Lots of consideration is placed in the book about the purpose versus the image of Prime Ministers Questions:

“The fact that Prime Ministers Questions is called Prime Ministers Questions often misleads people into assuming that the Prime Minister will spend the session answering questions. The fact that she doesn’t always do so makes some people think that the whole exercise if fake and that all their politicians are slippery”

Yet, what this book does consistently well is to highlight what PMQs is. No-one after reading this book will consider PMQs in the same way when returning to watch it. The book makes clear that people that people perhaps do not always realise what they are watching. Each week, two political leaders are each auditioning for the role of Prime Minister. They are doing so in front of a number of different audiences, each with their own levels of importance: their own party, the watching media and the watching public. Although only half an hour, their performance at PMQs can set the political tone for the week – even if PMQs doesn’t directly made headlines every Wednesday. The authors write:

“..even if the Prime Minister isn’t always answering the specific questions that are being asked, she is answering, both explicitly and implicitly, bigger political questions about who should be running the country. The subtext of all questions in the leader’ exchanges at PMQs is ‘Who should be running the country: you or me? The subject of all of the Prime Ministers answers is ‘I should be running the country, not you'”

In a chapter named ‘The Joust’ the authors consider the variety of match-ups that have existed at PMQs. The book explains that PMQs is not only about knowing your material and your own mind, but knowing the opponents too. The authors illustrate how the leaders exchanges in PMQs is like a chess game, the questions being the moving pieces as you try to tempt your opponent into a certain move. The authors give a number of notable examples, but one from 2011 that was particularly amusing:

Ed Miliband: “A year into his government, how would the Prime Minister rate his handling of the NHS?”

PM: …”the number of doctors is growing”

Ed Miliband: “In case the Prime Minister did not realise, it takes seven years to train a doctor, so I would like to thank him for his congratulations on our record om the NHS!”

Despite a chapter on this battle, one of the really interesting focuses in the book is that PMQs is not just about defeating the opposition parties, but showing you can mange your own. You need to show your own party that you are coherent on policy, have the charisma to be Prime Minister and, ultimately, have the full backing of your party. As the book sums it up:

“You want to give your own MPs, whose own future depends on young being a winner, heart and confidence that you are indeed in winner. To do that effectively, you need to understand not just your material, but the theatre you are performing in: the Chamber of the House of Commons.”

A chapter of the book is devoted to backbench questions, which can often be overlooked. It recounts how famously one Labour backbench MP asked Margaret Thatcher what the price of a loaf of bread was and she could not answer. In this one simple question the Prime Minister was shown to be elitist and out of touch, reinforcing a widely held Conservative stereotype. The book deals sympathetically with the proliferation of planted questions in PMQs, those often set up for the Prime Minister to knock for six and, sometimes, for the PM to announce a new decision as David Cameron did in 2012 announcing medals would be rewarded for those who sailed in the Arctic Convoys in WWII. The authors defend these questions and that it takes more significant work that you may imagine or orchestrate these planted questions.

This chapter also deals with the difficulties facing the third party, notably, that whilst lacking the authority that comes from standing behind a dispatch box, they are also being barracked by all corners of the house. Yet, despite, this, there have been occassions when the third party has stolen the show. This is most notable in the ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ quip by Vince Cable in 2007:

All in all, this is a fascinating book. It is readable, but also leads to lots of time spent googling to find out the background to stories that are used – always the sign of a well written politics book! The book is written from both a first and third person perspective. The authors both worked in Ed Miliband’s PMQs preparation team. Although there is a danger of this sometimes becoming dry and predictable, it is hugely outweighed by the thorough research and copious interviews of leading figures, including: Blair, Cameron, Osborne, Miliband, Whittingdale and Bercow.

Without being dogmatic, the authors have presented a robust defence of PMQs, showing there is more to it than meets the eye. They never seek to refute what PMQs looks like to the public. Instead, they argue that this is somewhat inevitable in ad adversarial system. What do do instead is to try to get you to see beyond the ‘punch and judy’ politics and see the more important aspect of PMQs beyond.

1 thought on “Book Review – Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions

  1. Pingback: PMQs – Is it just parliamentary theatre? | Politics Teaching

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