PMQs Verdict: It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?

28th January, 2015 1:13 pm

Parliament Commons PMQs

Last week Ed Miliband was quite candid about PMQs, when he said:

“Watching me and David Cameron shout at each other once a week on Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t very enlightening for anybody, let’s be frank about it. It probably massively puts people off politics if they’re watching it because they think: ‘It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?’”

This week Miliband and Cameron headed to the chamber to prove how accurate that statement was. In nearly five years of writing about PMQs – who is “up” who is “down” who is shouting the loudest and who “won”, this was by some distance one of the worst I’ve sat through.

As the Telegraph’s Stephen Bush said during the early stages of the encounter:

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I largely hate having to watch PMQs. It’s one of the worst parts of the job, because – the occasional interesting debate or great question aside – it’s utterly turgid, insular, “what on earth is this for?” nonsense. It seldom moves the political dial in any significant way (Hague was great at PMQs, where did that get him?) but it gives those of us who are in Westminster on a Wednesday something to talk about. Newspapers (and even blogs) give the sessions far less coverage than they used to. To be honest I watch and write about these sessions out of habit now, and because I’m clearly the kind of obsessive who is happy to submit himself to the ritual of trying to write about something he increasingly loathes each week.

And I suppose I’ll keep on doing so until they finally cancel them – giving up the pretence that these sessions are useful or are in any way a reasonable way of scrutinising the government (Cameron refuses to answer questions, doesn’t do press conference and hides from the debates – he doesn’t do scrutiny) – or I lose the will to live. A few more sessions like this one and the latter could easily come first.

But for those of you who are still passionate about PMQs (a huge number no doubt) lets talk briefly about what happened at today’s session. It was on the NHS. I know, I was as shocked as you are. Ed Miliband wanted to talk, quite reasonably, about the A&E departments that Cameron campaigned to save before the election but did precious little about in government. Cameron did what he does best – not answering the question and going on the attack. He asked Ed Miliband if he’d ever used the word “weaponise” about the NHS. Ed Miliband refused to answer, and harangued Cameron for not answering questions. If there must be a winner (and both press and MPs dictate there always must be) then Miliband won, because he asked Cameron substantive questions about major incidents at hospitals and A&E closures. But when debate is as turgid as this, there are no winners, only degrees of loser.

It was like being in one of Kafka’s nightmares.

So here’s a solution.

David Cameron – you said you’d protect those A&Es. But once in power you didn’t. Admit it and move on. You might even get some credit for your honesty, even from me.

Ed Miliband – I don’t know if you said “weaponise” or not. Frankly I don’t really care and doubt whether many people watching today will care either. If you said it, then say so – and say why. Say that the NHS is worth fighting for and that you’re going to club Cameron around the head his health service failings until he owns up. If you didn’t say it, then just say you didn’t say it. But if you didn’t say it you’d have said so by now – you see the conundrum here – and whether you like it or not, Cameron is going to keep on asking like a red-faced, irony-free stuck record. So be the bigger man and speak plainly and simply.

Did anything else happen today at PMQs? Well both leaders said that it was 99 days to go until election day. So we know that they can count and/or read their notes. 99 days more of this. And 7 more PMQs until election day. Christ alive. And I’m the kind of person who enjoys politics – so what must the unengaged and floating voters think?

Oh yeah, they’re not watching. Because… why would you?

Humbug.

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  • Michelle

    Personnally I thought it was good to see Ed being so passionate.

    • Matthew Blott

      Michelle your loyalty is touching 🙂

      • Michelle

        Glad I touched you 😉

        • Matthew Blott

          You do – your comments are always lovely.

  • alexagiusuk

    With Labour on the wrong end of the NHS debate where do they go from here? The NHS was suposed to be the one are where Labour would do well.

    • CoolJHS

      I rather think you are misguided with this statement because it is the Tories that are on the defensive this morning I’m afraid. Try again but stating the truth the next time around.

      • alexagiusuk

        In the last few hours:

        1.) Andy Burnham’s car carsh NHS interview on newsnight that has seen him pull out of todays daily politics show.
        2.) Labour’s ambulance response times in Wales are worst ever.
        3.) Milliband shown up at PMQ’s on the NHS (his supposed strongest issue).

        But in your world of denial it’s the Tories that are on the defensive this morning. Good luck with that line.

        • RegisteredHere

          Burnham could punch nurses in the face on live television and rename Stoke Mandeville in memory of Jimmy Savile, while Miliband gave Circle Healthcare a personal tour of the country’s A&E departments with a pile of ‘For Sale’ signs under his arm……and Labour would still be more trusted on the NHS than the Tories, because no one trusts the Tories with the NHS.

          I suppose it’s a little like the Tories being funded by the banks, and having bankers making up a decent slug of their parliamentary party, while offering sweetheart deals to GS and dumping the whole country into recession on the back of a failed neo-liberal mass delusion…..and still being more trusted on the economy than Labour.

          Cest la vie.

        • ColinAdkins

          Hardly. The Wark interview displayed her ignorance bleating on about giving her a percentage. Burnham’s position is that the NHS should be the preferred provider. If they lack capacity or expertise in some areas the private sector will be commissioned. The % will arise from application of those considerations and cannot be pre-determined.

          • Alex Agius

            So the same position as the Tories then, absolutely no limit on private outsourcing.

          • PATRICKNEWMAN

            It’s the 2012 Act, stupid. CCG’s (which are institutionalised post code lotteries) are forced into open competitive tendering (it’s the law) and this will be swept away under Labour but strengthened by the Tories.

        • CoolJHS

          Point 3, you are having a laugh, Cameron refusing to answer the question is simply pathetic but if you call that a good performance then you are just as pathetic as him. It is called Prime Minister’s Questions for a good reason you know.

          The Other two points, well other have already dealt with those; nothing more to be said.

        • Matthew Blott

          I always thought those investing in Burnham were likely to get buyer’s remorse as his past caught up with him. He certainly knows how to excite the bass but being good at telling people what they want to hear isn’t leadership. I fear he’s a bit of a lightweight.

    • wolfman

      What a load of rubbish. Go away !!

      • Alex Agius

        Go away? Labour wants the NHS front and center of the election campaign.

        • treborc1

          Yes but when did they not, even Blair used the NHS and every other leader who has fought to win an election look back at the manifestos. And for that mater so have the liberals and to a degree the Tories.

    • Michael Murray

      Not only do I want to see us weaponise the NHS I want us to weaponise it even more because that is the only way we’ll be able to save it from the Tory and Lib Dem privatisers. As for PMQs it is an essential institution. True Character is revealed when people are put under extreme pressure publicly. That’s why Dave the Loser is running scared of the TV debates.

      • Doug Smith

        In PMQs yesterday Miliband should have replied: “Of course I want to weaponise the NHS. We need to weaponise it to protect it from Tory privatisers.”

        But unfortunately Labour’s record, when in government, shows great enthusiasm for privatising the NHS. And in the Wark interview Burnham admitted there is a role for the private sector.

        So Labour has no argument with the Tories.

        Labour’s only ‘argument’ amounts to saying: We’ll do the same as the Tories but it’s not fair for them to stay in government because we want our turn in ministerial limousines.

        • Michael Murray

          Nonsense. There is a sea of blue water between Labour and the Tories regarding the NHS. The Tories hate the NHS because it’s underpinning ideology is socialist and they will not be satisfied until it ceases to exist and is replaced by private healthcare providers and health insurance parasites.

          • Leo McKinstry

            There you go again with your phoney claim that the Tories “hate the NHS.” Can provide a single piece of evidence to back up this wild statement? NHS expenditure has actually increased by almost 4 per cent in real terms under the Tory-led Coalition, while spending with the private sector has gone up by just 1 per cent, far less than the rise under the last Labour Government, as Kirsty Wark pointed out when she interviewed Andy Burnham on Tuesday night. Indeed, Burnham’s incoherent, contradictory performance exposed the hollowness of Labour’s NHS policy.

          • Michael Murray

            We can look forward to the Tories supporting our repeal of that privatisers’ charter the Health and Social Care Act then?

    • PATRICKNEWMAN

      The article was about PMQ behaviour but dont let relevance stop you exercising your right as a Tory troll. It is in Miliband’s gift to try something different like asking more forensic questions when Cameron is pathologically wed to being the objectionable Bullingdon Boy he is. As Cameron has the inverse Midas touch it is not difficult to expose this ‘mouth and trousers’ lightweight.

  • Monkey_Bach

    Why does it matter whether Miliband said “weaponise” or not? I really don’t get it. Especially as Cameron weaponised the Welsh NHS long ago to mount attacks on Miliband and the Labour Party. Tedious stuff. Cameron in particular was more evasive and even worse than usual, difficult as it is to believe that such a thing were possible. Nonsense like this brings British politics into disrepute and Cameron should be brought to book.

    Eeek.

    • David

      On the question of whether EM used the word weaponise or not – it doesn’t matter a jot. What matters is EMs credibility on how he deals with the accusation. Instead of coming out strongly and saying of course he used the word, the nhs is under attack from the Tories and he intends to give them all the weapons they need to defend themselves and he stands by it, he sounds shifty and deceitful by avoiding the accusation and claiming he has had a memory lapse. There is no question that he has lost the initiative to Cameron.

      • Monkey_Bach

        What I saw was a Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions refusing repeatedly to answer questions, other than sycophantic planted questions from Conservative MPs which allow Cameron to reel of selective favourable statistics, put to him by Miliband as the Leader of the Opposition. So as far as shiftyness goes Cameron is unashamedly far more untrustworthy and furtive than Miliband ever could be. Cameron lies and dissembles all the time, e.g., claiming that child poverty has gone down under the coalition, which is true, but only for the first two years of government after which it began to rise again which of course he would never admit to. Ultimately people will make a judgement based on their own personal experience. Cameron boasts about a million jobs created and if those jobs are decent jobs the people, supposedly many of them formerly unemployed, who now do (or did) them (since a huge number of the positions in the count were temporary) will I suppose be grateful and more inclined to vote Tory as a consequence; on the other hand if those jobs in reality are not so good being low paid, part-time and insecure, well, perhaps the affected workers will not be as warmly disposed towards the Conservatives as otherwise.

        Same with the NHS, housing, and every other issue.

        (Which is probably why the Tories are static at 32% in polls.)

        So, no, Miliband has not lost the initiative to Cameron. And questions asked at PMQs should be answered by the Prime Minister of the day not asked by him as a ploy to avoid being put under scrutiny.

        Eeek.

  • Sunny Jim

    It’s important in as much as the troops on the backbenches want to see their leader getting the best of it – it’s good for morale.

    I didn’t watch today (rarely do) but as we approach the election Ed needs to make sure he gets one decent soundbite per session for the evening news.

    Doesn’t matter what happens in the rest of it.

  • Markham Weavill

    “for those of you who are still passionate about PMQs (a huge number no doubt) ”

    I think you do a significant number of us a disservice if you think we waste half an hour watching a third rate musical hall double act. It might cheer up the troops and the media analysts in Westminster but for most of the electorate its yet another reason for holding politicians in contempt.

    I’d like Miliband NOT to ask any questions one week but leave it to his backbenchers. At least most of their questions are about their constituents.

  • Michael Worcester

    it is fashionable to say PMQ is an off-putting spectacle however it is the best most raw display of democracy in the world. No dictator or religious leader would allow this sort of introspection to their decisions. Anyone who wants to lead us should be put to account for their decisions, that Milliband is poor inquisitor in a target rich field is not Cameron’s fault.

    • Paul Richardson

      They are not put to account though! Questions are pre-prepared and known in advance … at least the topics will be. The PM never HAS to answer the question but parries away embarassing and searching inquiries with bluster or goes on the attack, along the lines of “well you were just as useless when you were in power!”.

      PMQs teaches us nothing about democracy other than adversarial tribalism and demogoguery. Its all about rallying the troops, getting a sound-bite on the 6 o’clock news and trying to score a couple of cheap points that really no one cares about.

      A really good example of how important it is. I remember William Hague was always regarded as winning PMQs time-after-time over Tony Blair. Did it make a bit of difference to the actions of the PM? … uh nope! So did it make a difference to the country in their regard for Tony Blair at the time? … not really since he won the following election handsomely.

    • Heidstaethefire

      It’s just a boys’ game, modelled on Public School debating societies and bearing little or no relation to worthwhile discussion. It boils down to “My soundite is better than your soundbite.”

  • ColinAdkins

    The claim about weaponising the NHS is an attempt to inhibit Labour raising the issue. Didn’t the Tories weaponise the deficit?

  • Steve38

    It’s not just Prime Minister’s Questions. The whole tradition bound caboodle needs serious reform. Voting lobbies, arcane debating rules, the chamber being almost empty (except of course for Dennis Skinner) most of the time. No-one takes it seriously any more. That’s why voting participation rates are on a steady decline.

  • Guy Dawe

    PMQ was twice weekly until Tony Blair bottled it because he thought parliament was an irrelevance to his govt
    BTW i always enjoy the spectacle of PMQ even if it does little to call any PM to account … all sides answer a question with a question whoever is in power.

  • ascu75

    My wife wont watch it just for that reason. She dislikes the bickering calls it playground politics. She has been put off voting she recons it only encourages them

  • jimmy

    I have to admit that PMQ is the most demotivating piece of reality tv that is broadcast. its even more cringeworthy than BB OR IACGMOH. The sniping is akin to that of Sharon Osbrorne and Simon Cowell its petty, ill informed, unhelpful and basically is a turn off for those on the political fringes. it serves a purpose for the Tory party becasuse the lower the turnout the better they perform. Milliband needs to realign and begin to dignify his participation and refuse to be drawn into the gutter politics. thats why CLegg performed so well during the leadership debates remaining focussed and calm at all times. engaging people in politics means rasing the game at PMQ or POINT BALNK REFUSING TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CHARADE!!

  • taylor

    Yes, so right. An unseemly spectacle. I know why it is called ‘Prime Ministers Questions’ – no questions get answered and it descends into a bear-pit with MPs drowning out anything worth listening to. I would make a rule that if an MP shouts out whilst the PM or Miliband is talking, they are made to go and stand outside for the rest of the lesson/session.
    This behaviour is unedifying; they should be ashamed of themselves.

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