Before David Cameron became Prime Minister he said that PMQs were too much of a Punch and Judy show, and vowed to change all that. Now he’s reduced to making jokes about Ed Miliband’s brother in order to get himself out of tricky questions.
Can anyone imagine the President of the United States behaving that way? I didn’t think so either. We seem to be unique in having a press that celebrates playground-behaviour at the hallowed institutions of democracy.
But complaining about it isn’t enough; how should Ed Miliband deal with the issue? Yesterday Mark Ferguson said Ed should cut the gags. I think that’s a fair point, but I’d go further.
The problem is broader: PMQs has become the main barometer by which the political class can judge the effectiveness of an opposition leader. And if Ed Miliband is to succeed in changing how the Labour Party interacts with voters across the country, PMQs are entirely the worse place to start from.
This is not to say that he is only focusing on PMQs, but the PLP feels too focused on influencing the Westminster class. This inevitably prompts some hysterical worrying when the usual suspects do their thing.
It’s worth noting that a year after Cameron became leader, he also faced a barrage of attacks from people from his own party. The press was full of open speculation that he would be replaced by the new year; briefings were coming at him from across the party. In contrast, Ed Miliband is leading a far more disciplined and cohesive party, with ‘Labour Insider’ briefings only coming from the usual minority.
But put that aside for now. The task for Ed Miliband shouldn’t be to come up with better gags at PMQs but to shift focus away from PMQs entirely and drive the agenda in other ways.
No one except the Westminster press pays attention to PMQs. It has zero impact on how people perceive a leader. The reason why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown lost voters isn’t because they did badly at PMQs, but because people stopped trusting their party.
There is a danger that Ed Miliband’s team follows the Gordon Brown script: trying to deal with pressure by making a series of speeches and announcements that are designed to appeal to the Westminster press, but do little to shift the culture of the party and make it more accessible to ordinary people across the country.
The Labour party is brimming with ideas, full of intelligent people and dedicated people. A focus on Westminster fails to engage those opportunities because, by its nature, that remains a highly centralised affair.
Instead of trying to feed a monster that relies on conflict and intrigue to drive the agenda, Ed Miliband needs to look more outwards. PMQS should be the least of his concerns