Ed Miliband has said with not very much reservation that the idea of getting rid of Prime Minister’s Questions is something he ‘might be up for’. He would look into it. As political statements go, that is edging on the emphatic. In the same interview he acknowledged public enervation at shouting matches.
He is dead right. As a sketchwriter I used to watch these encounters, and watched them deteriorate. In Gordon Brown’s time, his sullen people had a slogan, chanted ever and again: ‘No more boom or bust.’ Which, in the light of the outcome of Brown’s devotion to Ayn Rand’s favourite pupil, Alan Greenspan (granted the Freedom of the City of London in 2006), proved a cosmic custard pie too crude for irony.
I minded the chanting almost as much as the economics. ‘Come on the Rovers’ is one thing, rhythmic fiscal projection another. Where’s the dignity? where the wisdom of staying shut-up? I did less than my share of PMQs and tried, if the business of the day could pass in a flickering light as interesting, to stay for that and write the sketch – very quickly, but actually about something.
The general view of the lodge, though, was that this was being done especially for us, knock-about put on for knockers-about. Unfortunately that includes the ones in the chamber. From the leadership’s point of view, it was a pool of dubious light in which to be seen and perform. Thatcher could be iron-sided, Callaghan spurious-paternal, Macmillan a shrewd, not illiberal old gent who knew a thing or two and carried nice crumbs for discerning pigeons. Macmillan was good at it. Major, creditably, wasn’t. And Cameron is awful.
Overall, PMQs diminish the reputation of Parliament. The general contempt for MPs, which so many of them don’t deserve, owes a great deal to the sheer childishness of such overtures to an unattended opera. If you want a fairer and friendlier public, keep the cameras in committee, especially Public Accounts. Get polite. Get detailed. And remember: people are not as interested in party politics as you are.