To anyone in Westminster, Prime Minister’s Questions is terrific fun and a good measurement of how the leaders are doing every week. But what does the rest of the country think of this rip roaring event? The Hansard Society has released a new report Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions to find out whether the nation enjoys the session as much as the keen political watchers do.
The report suggests that PMQs are seen a ‘cue’ for wider perceptions of Parliament, most of which are negative. The public dislikes the pantomime atmosphere, the political point scoring and general behaviour of MPs — which is likened to a school playground. Polling from the report suggests that two thirds of the public think there is too much party political point-scoring instead of answering serious questions:
The Hansard Society offers a package of reforms, including moving PMQs to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening — the timings currently mean the 55+ age group are most likely to watch the whole thing. The paper also suggests the format ‘should be varied to facilitate a more discursive approach, pursuing genuine debate on just a few topical areas’. Questions from the Leader of the Opposition should be reduced while a ‘sin bin’ penalty could be introduced for disorderly conduct, with the power to remove MPs from the chamber.
Commentators like Dan Hodges and Iain Martin may have a point arguing that PMQs has become a ‘joke’ and a ‘contemptible farce’, but reform should not take the heart out of the event. Moving it to a Tuesday/Wednesday evening could indeed engage more people but ‘genuine debate’ is never going to happen in just half an hour, whatever time that debate is held. Plus, a ‘sin bin’ shouldn’t be needed if the speaker has authority over the house — which Bercow still commands.
BuzzFeed’s successful efforts to report on PMQs through animated GIFs suggests the event has interest beyond the audience described in the Hansard Society report. One very welcome reform would be to scrap the ludicrously archaic restrictions on filming Parliament, forbidding the use of footage in a ‘comedic or satirical context’. Then we could finally have something like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in Britain. But there’s no need to turn PMQs into a dull Q&A purely to make the Commons look more agreeable. This would kill any interest in the event and push the public further away from ‘the great cockpit of the nation’.