Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide To Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Published by Biteback.
Iain Duncan Smith was terrible at it. William Hague was brilliant at it but it got him nowhere. Theresa May is not very good at it. Jeremy Corbyn is better although is a dull performer. Harold Wilson drank a bottle of whiskey, sometimes two to prepare for it. Margaret Thatcher had her notes for it, produced in large print. She felt wearing reading glasses would look like a sign of weakness.
It is, in fact, Thatcher who we have in many ways to thank for Prime Minister’s Questions in its current form. Although Prime Ministers have had a designated time slot for answering questions since the early 1960s, it was Thatcher who transformed it into a major event – or rather two events – by choosing to answer every question herself. It was also around this time – although not her doing – that parliamentary proceedings began being broadcast on the radio from 1978 and then TV from 1989. The modern ritual of PMQs would not be the same without this.
On taking office, Tony Blair reduced the sessions from two to one a week. Some criticised him for this, suggesting it proved his “contempt for parliament” but in fact it seems very sensible. Thatcher reportedly spent eight hours a week just preparing for her two weekly sessions. Something had to give.
Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton are behind this well researched and thorough guide and clearly know their stuff. Both have experience as political advisers and spent years briefing Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband behind the scenes for their own sessions with, as they admit, somewhat mixed results.
It is a bizarre ritual, a genuine ordeal for the leaders on both sides and almost useless as a means to both ask and get an answer to a question, involving a lot of improvisation, preparation and second guessing. The sight of 600 paid representatives bawling and groaning at each other in a crowded chamber on a weekly basis also probably puts more people off politics than anything else.
It does serve a function though and as the book reminds us, has provided scenes of rare humour and drama. William Hague, though a largely unsuccessful Tory leader was a master of this strange art and like the late John Smith could often be very funny.
Even Hague, could come unstuck though, as he did filling in for David Cameron when Harriet Harman stood in for PM, Gordon Brown in 2008.
“You had to explain yesterday that you dress in accordance with wherever you go – you wear a helmet to a building site, you wear Indian clothes to Indian parts of your constituency,” he began, then attempting a joke. “Presumably when you go to a cabinet meeting you dress as a clown.”
Against all expectation, Harriet Harman then wiped the floor with him:
“If am looking for advice on what to wear or what not to wear, I think the very last person I would look to for advice is the man in a baseball cap,” she said.
By common consent, PMQs is currently going through a dull patch. Jeremy Corbyn covered up his initial experience well by using questions from the general public. Today, he is much better and no longer resorts to this clever tactic. But he is not a spontaneous performer even as he consistently outperforms Theresa May.
It was David Cameron who called for “an end to Punch and Judy politics” when he became Tory leader in 2005. He was not the first or last leader to express such sentiments and was not referring to PMQs specifically anyway, a ritual which he generally proved pretty good at.
But a few years later, he admitted the folly of this pledge. For calm down, dear! He was the future once, his Day Mayor and your Night Mayor.
And Punch and Judy politics are here to stay.