PMQs - more like pretty mediocre questions - is now a waste of time and both Sunak and Starmer need to improve
Teachers wouldn’t let schoolchildren hoot and jeer while debating something in class - so why do we accept it from people elected to represent our interests?
and live on Freeview channel 276
It’s a relatively simple format. The leader of the opposition, currently Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, questions the Prime Minister, currently Rishi Sunak, on the key issues facing the country - and scrutinises the actions he’s taking to tackle them. Meanwhile, we, the public, are allowed to watch as things unfold.
But this isn’t exactly how things happen in practice. Instead of a debate on what matters to the public, it’s a battle of poorly thought-out insults - many of which often drift away from the political realm into the personal one.
The same jabs crop up week after with, with Jeremy Corbyn getting regular mentions despite the fact he hasn’t been Labour Party leader for years. Exchanges become increasingly heated as the session drags on, and we rarely learn anything of substance - save for the little known fact that the Tories and Labour don’t exactly like each other.
When it comes to accountability, this falls short too. Instead of the Prime Minister offering up answers on what he’s done and why he’s done it, we usually get a pre-rehearsed speech on something else he wants to bring to attention - sometimes with zero relevance to the initial question.
This likely isn’t helped by the incessant jeering from the surrounding MPs - I imagine it’s somewhat difficult to deliver a focused and accurate response when your colleagues are heckling, laughing, and shouting. In these instances, the Speaker of the House frequently has to pause the ongoing debate to quiet raucous politicians, and you often can’t hear what’s being said because of the noise.
This aspect of PMQs is just embarrassing. Teachers wouldn’t let schoolchildren act like this way while debating something in class - so why do we accept it from people elected to represent our interests?
It’s also worth noting that PMQs is supposed to be a reliable source of information - but simply hasn’t been over the past months. NationalWorld recently had to fact check Starmer’s assertions on rape charge rates, which revealed that the figures he gave had been misleading. After that, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab had to correct the Parliamentary record after giving the wrong figures - also in relation to rape prosecutions.
This sort of verification is often needed for PMQs, as many see the quickfire format as an opportunity to make a few soundbite-worthy claims that may not exactly add up. This doesn’t do much for public confidence in politicians, which is at a considerable low. Even when MPs are making well-founded claims it’s difficult to know whether to trust them.
The question then is, do we still need PMQs? There’s an argument that it’s a tradition of British politics and has to stay - and in truth, it would be weird to see it go as we have all become so accustomed to the weekly back-and-forth. Also, I have to admit, the session does provide great content for compilation videos on YouTube. (Some of the best moments are arguably from the David Cameron / Gordon Brown / Nick Clegg era.)
However, a somewhat more convincing argument for PMQs is that you can’t just get rid of it, as even if it doesn’t always work, it still is one of the few formats which attempts to publicly hold the Prime Minister to account (aside from occasional press conferences or public appearances).
Accountability is a crucial aspect of a democratic society - and one we shouldn’t look to get rid of anytime soon. Those who hold power should have to explain their actions so that we can decide whether we want to keep them in power, and it’s also a good way to encourage politicians to perform more effectively.
But PMQs, as it stands, is not fulfilling its purpose. It would if those in the chamber could sit quietly and listen to the debate without shouting, if the questions asked were genuine questions and not carefully or recklessly crafted insults, and if, crucially, the Prime Minister answered all questions directly.
This happens on occasion, but is ‘on occasion’ enough to justify it? Maybe a new format for ensuring government accountability should be considered - because this one, although traditional, is just becoming a waste of time.