Contents april 2011
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It’s rhetorical, blustery, dramatic and a great spectacle, but does Prime Minister’s Questions do a disservice to modern politics?
Sean Dilley looks for answers across the despatch box
WITH DAVID CAMERON
ED MILIBAND NICK CLEGG
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44 | April 2011 | Total Politics
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Tony Blair described it as “the emotional, intellectual and political repository of all that is irrational”, and the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has called for “more scrutiny, more civility, less noise and less abuse masquerading as inquiry”, so what’s the point of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), and who is it for?
Over the years, PMQs has undergone many transformations. Before the late 19th century, questions to the prime minister were treated no diﬀerently from questions to other ministers. In 1881, as a kindness to the 72-year-old William Gladstone, Speaker Sir Henry Brand listed questions to the PM at the end of each day’s business, but constraints on parliamentary time ensured that appearances were far from regular.
The next significant change came in 1953 under Speaker Morrison, when ill health dictated that Sir Winston Churchill would answer questions in the House only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This mark of respect to Churchill was adopted as a convention by Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan until the next big overhaul in 1961, when Speaker Hylton-Foster introduced two fixed 15-minute sessions for PMQs at 3.15pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of the greatest transformations, however, came in 1977 when James Callaghan accepted recommendations from the procedures commi ee that the PM should answer most questions himself rather than deferring to relevant ministers, as was previously the practice.
The broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings furthered the gladiatorial comedy of PMQs. On 3 March 1978, over 50 years a er first discussions on the ma er, BBC radio bosses were given the green light to broadcast daily editions of Question Time, including PMQs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One former researcher from this era – now a senior MP – told me: “Radio made PMQs much more of a performance… A er the first few sessions, members were hearing their own voices, and they saw it as an opportunity to gain personal notoriety.” Conversely, the same source told me that TV broadcasting, introduced in November 1989, “made li le diﬀerence initially” to members’ performances. “If anything, it made people more self-conscious for the first year.”
It’s a view that has been backed by politicians and journalists across the board. In 1997, Tony Blair scrapped the 36-year-old twice-weekly PMQ convention in favour of one fixed session of half an hour each Wednesday, which Robin Cook, as leader of the House, brought forward to the midday slot it occupies today. In his memoirs, Blair explains that his reformation of PMQs was made with the “physical and mental” strains of a twice-weekly showdown in mind: “I never regre ed that decision, and subsequent prime ministers will thank me for it.”
Today, prominent figures oﬀer conflicting views on the direction and function of PMQs. Last year, Speaker Bercow slammed PMQs as “a litany of a acks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum”, and proclaimed pharisaically, “If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screech.” The Speaker declined to be interviewed, but his view that “the public despise” shouting at PMQs is well recorded.
Shadow Northern Ireland minister Stephen Pound says: “Never, in my 14 years in this House, have I ever heard any constituent complaining that they despise shouting at PMQs.” Quentin Le s from the DailyMail backs this view: “There is absolutely no evidence of discontent with shouting and confrontation in my mailbag.” And in a rare moment of unity across the spectrum, the DailyMirror’s associate editor, Kevin Maguire, ventures: “I don’t think the public would watch it if it were a Socratic debate.”
I asked each MP featured here, and many others, whether they’ve ever received any communication complaining about the behaviour of MPs during PMQs. Only one backbencher told me that he had, and then qualified it by mentioning he’d received “just two le ers in 20 years”.
Speaker Bercow is not the first to have called for the confrontation during PMQs to end. Tony Blair pledged to end the ‘yah-boo’ of British politics, David Cameron famously promised to end ‘Punch and Judy’, and Ed Miliband told the Commons is “primed for confrontation”. This is backed by the MPs that I asked to come up with one word to describe the atmosphere during PMQs. Words that kept coming up were: intimidating, scary, crowded, adversarial, combinative, confined, uncomfortable, noisy, hot and competitive.
The chamber is set up to be as adversarial as any sports arena. MPs are in a pit overlooked by three galleries: the public gallery, unfortunately screened oﬀ with soundproof glass; the glassless special galleries, from where members’ guests can watch proceedings; and the press gallery, located behind and to the sides of the Speaker’s chair. It’s noisier in the flesh, and those in the chamber do not have the benefit of TV microphones to hear every crowd-drowned word that viewers do at home.
Interestingly, in 1943 MPs shunned the chance to redesign the chamber a er the old one was bombed during the war, opting instead to replicate the confined conditions they’d become accustomed to. Churchill told MPs that the old layout was responsible for Britain’s two-party system, which he described as “the bedrock of British parliamentary democracy”. This is why today the Commons chamber has just 427 seats for 650 members. As Churchill observed: “We shape our
Radio made PMQs much more of a performance… After the first few sessions, members were hearing their own voices, and they saw it as an opportunity to gain personal notoriety me: “We really have to change the tone.”
Cameron’s former press secretary George Eustice explains why any a empt at a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ would inevitably be extinguished by the cold, hard rain of political expediency. “Early on, there was a feeling that PMQs was not a good spectacle for the public. They just saw children fighting in a playground, slinging abuse at each other. So, we tried – and Tony Blair tried before us – this idea that you would try and make it a mature discussion. No more ‘Punch and Judy politics’ is what Cameron said. We picked more earnest, serious topics that didn’t create a lot of political knockabout, but which were, nevertheless, important.
“It didn’t work, because over time, the hacks in the Lobby get bored. They want blood on the carpet, and they want good copy. During earnest questions, they just put their pencils down. There was no scribbling going on. So, you start to get them mu ering in the newspaper sketches, saying, ‘Oh well, he’s not very good’, ‘He’s flat’, that sort of thing. They liked to see the knockabout – it’s what people expect, and you’ve got to give it to them or they mu er and moan.”
Ed Miliband points out in his Q&A (p47) that buildings, and a erwards, our buildings shape us.”
There’s much debate about the way PMQs plays with the public perception of politics, but Robbie Gibb, the respected editor of BBC’s live political programmes, says that whatever people say about how they want their politics to be conducted, viewers seem to like it as it is. “It’s no surprise,” he explains, “that the audience for TheDaily Politics on a Wednesday is more than double the number who watch during the rest of the week.”
Although there’s no apparent correlation between the performance of party leaders and their popularity in the polls, they know they must perform well at the despatch box if they want to keep their backbenchers happy. This is the principal objective of PMQs for the prime minister. The same, of course, applies to the leader of the opposition, but the additional purpose for him is to land punches on the PM and to take advantage of the increased media coverage to highlight issues.
Those who have the most to gain from PMQs are really the backbenchers. “It’s a ba le for the PM’s in-tray,” Gordon Brown’s friend and former digital minister Tom Watson once observed, perceptively. There are countless cases where MPs have secured
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Total Politics | April 2011 | 45
IAIN DALe IN CONVERSATION...
Can Douglas Alexander really be as nice as he seems? I reckoned that he might have slightly fallen out of love with politics over the last few years so I wanted to find out if the backwaters of lonely opposition had rekindled his political spark. One thing’s for sure. If Labour are to get back into power, Douglas Alexander will play a major part in mapping out their strategy for doing so Photos by Alister Thorpe
ID: Everyone thought you were really enjoying shadowing work and pensions (DWP). Were you disappointed to leave that job? DA: I did it for about four months and enjoyed it because it reflected some of the key issues that the opposition is engaged in. But I’ve had a longstanding interest in international affairs. I served in the Foreign Office (FCO) for two years and the Department for International Development (DfID) for three years. I was delighted to get the call from Ed [Miliband], somewhat ironically in the departure lounge of the Eurostar on my way to Paris. I enjoyed the work that I did on the DWP but I’m delighted to have the foreign policy brief. It’s proved to be even more meaningful than I was anticipating.
Did you have any Margaret Beckett-esque words when you got the phone call from Ed? No. I think I said: “Thank you very much.” Terribly tedious. How has your previous experience helped you prepare for what you’re doing now? I was in the Cabinet Office in 2004, when Andrew Marr phoned me at my desk and asked how I felt about Alan Milburn coming back to the department. I said: “Andrew, I haven’t heard anything about it.” He replied: “Oh I’m sorry” and put the phone down very quickly. The next call was from Tony Blair, who asked me to come and see him in Downing Street. He said he’d decided to bring Alan Milburn back into the Cabinet Office,
50 | April 2011 | Total Politics
Total Politics | April 2011 | 51
British soldiers during the Crimean War
62 | April 2011 | Total Politics
THE FIRST GLOBAL WAR Historian Anthony Howe examines the political skirmishing that led to the outbreak of the Crimean War
The question, ‘Why the Crimean War?’ has o en been asked, but rarely satisfactorily answered. The Crimean War tends to be remembered, if at all, for how it was fought (the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade, the seeming incompetence of the British generals, the pioneering photography of Roger Fenton, the war journalism of William Russell, the nursing reforms of Florence Nightingale) rather than why. Yet, for many, what made the war distinctive in its origins was the unusual part played by public opinion.
The British people, schooled in decades of Russophobia, expressed an enthusiasm for war that influenced many Liberal MPs. Their fervour eventually forced Lord Aberdeen’s government to join France in supporting Turkey against Russia’s claims to protect the rights of Orthodox Christians within the O oman Empire. This was followed by Russian military intervention in the Danubian Principalities, nominally under Turkish authority. Lord Palmerston, succeeding Aberdeen as prime minister in February 1855, and remaining in power for most of the next decade, benefited from this popular tide of opinion. But at the heart of this pro-war sentiment was the mistaken hope that defeating Russia would pave the way for the liberation of Poland, Hungary, and Italy.
As the Duke of Newcastle (colonial secretary in Aberdeen’s cabinet and later his secretary of state for war) suggested, public opinion assumed an importance largely because “we [the cabinet] do not try to lead or guide it”. This apparent inability to lead reflected the deep divisions within the Whig–Peelite coalition government. Its stance on war with Russia was taken less over support for the ‘oppressed’ nationalities of Europe than by more traditional strategic, military and diplomatic concerns.
Some have rightly questioned whether it was a ‘Crimean’ War at all, pointing out the importance of the Baltic in British calculations. St Petersburg was the ultimate goal of those who later wanted to continue the war, as was the strengthening of Britain’s position in the East by transferring Russian territory to Turkey. The war was also fought in the White Sea and the Pacific, making it, in some ways, the first global war. The strongest advocate of a wider war to curtail Russia’s longterm power was the ‘hawkish’ Whig and former foreign secretary Palmerston, the ‘most English’ minister. His far-seeing private memoranda rivalled those of any later ‘Cold War’ crusader. In public, Palmerston denied that the O oman Empire was about to collapse, and defended its integrity as essential to the balance of power. He wrote: “The real conflict is between Russia on the one hand and England and France on the other, much more than between Russia and Turkey.”
Yet at the start of the War, Palmerston was home secretary in the coalition government led by the Peelite ‘dove’ Lord Aberdeen who was regarded then and since as the minister most favourable to Russia – following improved relations between Britain and Russia in the 1840s, and a famous state visit by Nicholas I. During the la er, Tsar Nicholas believed he had secured British agreement to share out the spoils of the O oman Empire when it collapsed. Lord Aberdeen, not unlike Chamberlain in the 1930s, undoubtedly sought to hold back from war as long as possible, believing it “the greatest proof of the depravity and corruption of human nature that anything so horrible as war should ever be just and lawful”. He looked for support from his fellow Peelites, such as Gladstone, Newcastle, and Herbert, while outside he also gained respect from the pro-peace ‘Manchester School’ led by Cobden and Bright, the la er seeking to strengthen Lord Aberdeen’s antiwar resolve in several private conversations.
Between these discordant views, the Whig MP Clarendon, as foreign secretary, found himself acting as a mediator. This le the enduring impression that his own diplomacy was muddled and indecisive. Initially, he shared Lord Aberdeen’s reluctance for war, but gradually came under the influence of Palmerston, and moved British policy in an anti-Russian direction.
The crucial developments ocurred well before the outbreak of war in March 1854, and had their roots in the revival of the 1849 dispute over ownership of the holy places in Palestine. But arguably, war became probable in May 1853, when Britain backed Turkey’s opposition to Russia’s overbearing demands to protect the Orthodox Christians in the O oman Empire, and sent the navy to Besika Bay.
Britain now seemed morally committed to defending Turkey against Russia, and the processes of diplomacy seemed to reach an impasse in September, forcing Clarendon to accept war as ‘inevitable’. One further factor in pushing Britain towards war was fear of unilateral action by France, who, in the later months of 1853, o en acted in advance of Britain. In 1852, the British public had been led to expect war with France, not Russia. The
Crimean alliance with France interrupted this wider Anglo–French conflict, but British diplomacy was influenced by an awareness that, if France supported Turkey alone, it would severely damage British prestige and lead to French supremacy in Europe.
Yet such calculations, like those of Palmerston, were not for public consumption. Parliamentary debate focused now on the rights of Turkey, threatened by Russian aggression, with strong overtones of a clash of civilisations and religious ideologies. Most Liberals MPs found they could support Turkey’s cause, especially when it was linked to decades of anti-Russian propaganda, and when earnest evangelicals, such as Lord Sha esbury, spoke up in favour of Turkey’s record of religious toleration (albeit when Muslim converts to Christianity
Richard Cobden saw Russia as civilised rather than barbarous, with a trading potential far greater than that of the ‘backward’ Turkish Empire faced execution). Nevertheless, there were important dissentients, in particular from Richard Cobden, the Radical hero of the anti-Corn Law campaign of the 1840s, for whom upholding Turkey was tantamount to upholding despotism, slavery, polygamy, Mahomedanism, and a regime opposed by three-quarters of Turkey’s population in Europe. Contrary to popular Russophobia, Cobden saw Russia as civilised rather than barbarous, with a potential for trade far greater than that of the ‘backward’ Turkish Empire. With most of his former supporters tending to war, Cobden somewhat fancifully hoped Tory backbenchers might join in his protests. A few did – the last remnants of a country tradition in British politics – but most of the Tory party backed their leader Lord Derby and his former foreign secretary, Malmesbury, who favoured supporting Turkey through a strong Anglo–French coalition, and who saw Lord Aberdeen’s ‘vacillation’ as likely
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Ali s t e r
T h o r p e
Regulars Letters 4 Diary 6 Sophy Ridge of Sky News Polling 8 Blogger writes 9 The idea 10 Max Wind-Cowie from Demos on muscular liberalism Data 11 Debate 12 Do trade unions represent modern Britain? Point of order 13 Penny Mordaunt MP on the ageing population Events/The Wanted List 14 Ministerial profile 16 John Penrose MP MP of the month 18 Ian Swales MP
Total Campaigns Running an effective referendum campaign 22 George Pascoe-Watson on... 23 Changes at the Foreign Office The rise of the iPad 24 Campaign doctor 25 ’A’ is for ‘accuracy’ 26 Why the electoral roll database is your best canvassing tool
FeaturesHouseofLordssurvey 29 An exclusive survey on reform of the Upper House Damian Green 30 The immigration minister on one of the trickiest political debates of our time
Opposing the government 32 From tuition fees to Sure Start, Labour MPs explain which coalition policies they most dislike Gender balance 34 One MP’s vision for Parliament Philip Hammond 36 The transport secretary writes on his ambitious plans for Britain’s rail and road networks
Cover Story William Hague page 56
The foreign secretary discusses his fears for the Middle East, why he’s right to focus on business at the FCO and being “perfectly self-contained”
Flowers of Scotland 40 We head to Holyrood and talk to the front-runners in the coming spring election PMQs 44 Sean Dilley talks to David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg about the fiercest of parliamentary battles In conversation with Douglas Alexander 50 Labour’s shadow foreign secretary opens up to Iain Dale
Total History Crimea: the first global war 62 The political skirmishing that led to the conflict Where are they now? 64 The history of one object 65 Memorabilia 65 They were also MPs 66 Thomas Babington Macaulay
Total Life Book reviews 68 David Ruffley MP and Keith Simpson MP Brought to book 69 Jenny Randerson AM My old book 69 Lisa Nandy MP Film review: Oranges and Sunshine 70 Researchers’ stories 71 Hinterland 72 Mel Stride MP as a tour guide Top ten political Nobel Peace Prize winners from the UK 73 Lunch with... 74 Chris Smith
Total Politics | April 2011 | 3