It is fashionable to say that PMQ s has become an over the top shouting match which the nation no longer likes.
I would believe that entirely if my constituents when they asked to come to see the Commons asked for any debate or question time other than PMQs, but they still often prefer PMQs to anything else. I would also believe it more if PMQs received less media attention, and some of the other better debates and question times we hold were reported more widely.
Prime Minister’s Questions used to be held twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 15 minutes each. That gave the Leader of the Opposition the chance to lead the news twice a week, though he was much more limited in the number of questions than today. It also meant the PM was more engaged with the Commons on a regular basis, and kept Parliament more topical as you can ask the PM about anything whereas at Departmental questions on the other days you have to stick to that department’s subject.
Mr Blair changed all that. He thought he was too busy to go twice a week. Or maybe he did not want the Leader of the Opposition having a platform twice a week. He did allow 30 minutes instead of two lots of 15 minutes and allowed more questions to the Leader of the Opposition. The media, however, do not normally give the Opposition two stories out of the one PMQs.
In the age of Blair/Brown media management certain bad practice which had been around in the past was taken to new lengths. The PM liked MPs on his own side to share with him before PMQs what they were going to ask, or would through his friends and staff let it be known what the PM would like to be asked. The government wanted to hone the show, control the soundbites and help arrange the news.
Much of the exchange became scripted. Mr Blair would have pre arranged soundbites and killer facts. The Leader of the Opposition would script his questions with advisers, with someone acting out how the PM might answer or behave so the supplementaries could be written in advance.
The issue today is what if anything should be done to improve PMQs? Is it too noisy? Is it too scripted? If so, how could you change that? Does it at least let the nation see the emotions of the exchanges over the big issues of the day, or is it a kind of political theatre that does not satisfy the voters?