This morning, as I try to every Wednesday morning, I tuned into Prime Ministers Questions, the great charade of British politics, the superficial epithet of executive accountability, the midweek circus of Westminster. However, as well as the chamber being notably absent of MP’s, there was a more noticeable absence – the bravado and ostentatiousness which normally defines the half an hour slot kicking off every Wednesday afternoon.
Of course, with the current Covid-19 pandemic and the need for cross-party cooperation, the country does not need a chamber filled with grown adults hurling insults at each other like some sort of libellous pantomime. But I couldn’t help feel that even without the current pandemic, this change of character in PMQs would still be a foot. That may seem an unlikely change given that the current PM, Boris Johnson, an Etonian schoolboy at heart, is no doubt a character most suited in demeanour and personality to the the mud-slinging, name calling and calamitous jeering nature of PMQ’s we’ve come to know and love.
The reason for this change however I believe lies predominantly at the feet of two people; Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the new speaker of the House, and Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader charged with spearheading the opposition during PMQs. Hoyle doesn’t exactly command the same fervour amongst the benches like that of his predecessor John Bercow. By the end of his time in the chair, Bercow had established an almost legendary standing, not just for the prominency he brought to the role of the speaker, but for his notorious ability to control the chamber with his marmite caterwauling, “ORDERRHURRRRRRR” and popularising the most unknown retorts in the process, “Chuntering from a Sedantry position.” I loved Bercow for his range of vocabulary that any Bullingdon Club member would be jealous of, but also for his aptitude in the role of speaker. However, In saying this, he did accommodate the raucous and boisterous calamity, his presence and his tone in trying to control the house, I would argue, often encouraged the schoolboy mentality that ripped through the Chamber and for which events such as PMQs were criticised as being reduced to mere sensationalised spectacles. Hoyle, the avuncular Lancastrian, served as deputy speaker under Bercow, but he by no mean deputised and replicated the style of Bercow, instead to the chair Hoyle brings a completely different persona, one which instills a degree of calmness and maturity in the chamber, and this will continue to be seen in the dulling of spectacles such as that of PMQs – I’m not sure how much I like it…
As for Starmer, well he’s received a degree of criticism on his conduct in the House, that is because he too, like Hoyle, marks a departure away from the rumbustiousness of the past decade. And because of this people have criticised him for being soft, but I believe it isn’t softness, rather a much more robust and rigorous elevation of standard away from the personal insults. Not only does it appear Starmer will do this through his own mannerisms and conduct at the dispatch box, but it appears he will force his opposite number to do the exact same by removing any ammunition from the Tory gun so often cocked with a myriad of jibes to let fire at the Labour leader. Boris even jibed that Corbyn was the best leader Labour ever had essentially because it gave the Conservative party such an easy target. Any valid line of questioning from Corbyn could always easily and quickly be retorted by the Etonian prince (and his predecessors) simply denouncing whatever historical unpleasantry they could throw and make stick. It was the same under Miliband, Cameron’s slickness was no match for the bumbling Red Ed, all Dave ever had to do was set that left elbow on the dispatch box and slyly lean inward and Labour would be readying the White Flag.
I may have gotten ahead of myself in noting the shift away from the mayhem of PMQs that we had come to love. It is after all problematic to draw a comparison between a parliament debating the likes of Brexit with that of one navigating a global pandemic. Although I do maintain that Starmer and Hoyle will bring a very different standard to Wednesday afternoons, and it will not benefit the Tory party who will now be exposed for their failings at the hands of a man they cannot quip back at with talk of top buttons or turkeys. One thing remains the same for PMQs, we will continue to see the ineffectual time wasting and nonsense filibustering from Tory MPs who brown nose and pander to the party brass with planted questions, Ben Bradley I’m looking at you.