This new format for PMQs cannot last.
I was of the opinion that this latest wheeze of crowd sourcing questions at PMQs was less about the ‘new’ and more about masking Corbyn’s probable deficiencies in going up against Cameron in the old style. Even if my cynicism isn’t misplaced this format seems to have gone down well with many. The People’s Questions! This then is an argument that the PM should face such questions regularly. Ok. Great. Apparently the people are important or something.
That raises some other questions like, who would decide the questions? Who would deliver them? etc. Perhaps this is worth discussing. But this is a representative democracy, we elect MPs so they can do it themselves and hopefully they are better at it than us. Giving up the 6 questions to the public, that by custom the leader of the opposition has to question the government, isn’t the price to pay for this. Besides, when the leader of the opposition is picking the questions out of 40,0000 emailed, it really isn’t public questions anyway. This is questions from Corbyn but with a name like ‘Angela’ thrown in and the added pathos of whatever hard grafting, low paid, public-spirited job she might have. All a bit too trendy for me.
Either way, this format, as used today, can’t go on for very long. The reasons for this are as follows:
1: It fails in its function as a morale booster for the PLP. The image of the leader leading and sticking it to the PM is of value. It galvanizes and focuses the team.
2: When something in the week occurs there is an opportunity to question the government on it. This requires reacting to the answers and to keep digging away. This, when done properly, is a serious weapon in the armoury of the opposition. (When it has a leader capable of wielding it.)
3: It makes the prime minister look good and it makes him look prime ministerial.
This third one is worth fleshing out a bit.
When PMQs is like a dog fight you have 2 dogs fighting. They look of equal rank and you also get to compare abilities. If you fancy your dog more it is certainly worth the fight. However, this new format instantly concedes the position. Corbyn might well set himself up as the Tribune of the Plebs, and act as a conduit for Steven and Angela and Gareth from the Heath, but he is always addressing the Consul.
A member of the public, asking one question, is unlikely to trap a skilled PM. Cameron is a skilled PM and he can answer them while looking reasonable. It then grants him free time to explain the Tory position or in turn explain why the answer Labour would provide would be even worse. The whole time he is doing this he looks like what he is, the prime minister. It is no longer two equals or even close.
“I the Prime Minister of Great Britain thank you for bringing to my feet the concerns of Nigel the train driver and here is my answer to Nigel”. This is a great look for the PM and does nothing whatsoever for the LOTO. He is reduced to being a sifter of emails.
For that reason alone, that format can’t hold.
Besides, it’s dull.
Perhaps this is something he will wish to try now and then. Perhaps it is merely something to help him calm his nerves first time out, it should be remembered after all that this was the poor chap’s first time at the dispatch box ever.
If this is something to try of a slow week then fine. If it is attempted every week, it won’t be attempted for very long.