If you asked a politics graduate, working on a doctorate on the centralisation of power in 21st century Britain, what he would like for his birthday, he might well answer – two and a half hours with the Prime Minister. Although this was not on my list of wants, that is how I spent my birthday last week. On the basis of a ten hour working day, I spent a quarter of it with the Prime Minister. And with nineteen other Select Committee Chairmen. And with whomever was tuned in to the parliament channel and lasted the course.
I mean no disrespect to our current Prime Minister when I say these sessions are less animated than the ones with his predecessor, who would engage more readily in spirited exchanges.
The challenge for the Select Committee Chairmen with Tony Blair was to get him to address us by our Christian names before our sequence of questions came to an end. His use of that familiarity was a signal that our questioning was getting close to the mark. When the session was over, like fighter pilots returning to base in the Second World War, we would compare scores and award medals.
We are having to change the rules with Gordon. In his first reply, before I had even warmed up, he had called me Sir George.
These exchanges require some preparation. You know you can only ask a certain number of questions, and the later ones depend on the answers to the earlier ones. Lines of retreat need to be blocked off.
My strategy was simple yet, to my mind, cunning. It was to confront the Prime Minister with what the current Speaker had said about Prime Ministers Questions, and ask him if he agreed.
To understand the subtlety of this strategy, readers need to know the relevant quotation, which I reproduce here.
“The Punch and Judy show is boring, extremely abrasive and is now a contributory factor to the contempt bordering on opprobrium in which we are now held.”
Whatever his reply, I calculated, the Prime Minister was in trouble.
If he agreed with the Speaker’s analysis, I would then accuse him of being complicit in bringing politics into disrepute. As the principal performer at Prime Minister’s Questions, he could hardly distance himself from how it was conducted.
If, on the other hand, he challenged the Speaker’s analysis, I could accuse him of a constitutional impropriety of the highest order, by challenging the opinion of him who conducts the proceedings in the House.
How could he avoid this carefully contrived trap, once I had covered it with sticks and leaves?
Readers may have guessed what happened. He made a large detour and failed to answer the question.
I reproduce below his reply.
Mr Brown: Well, I would like to see the House of Commons distinguish itself by being able to deal with, often in a non-party-political way, some of the big issues of our time. Prime Minister’s Question Time has not ever been, as far as I can see in the time that I have been in, the vehicle for that to happen. I think the sadness about the House of Commons is that there are very big issues our country faces and, whether it is Afghanistan or whether it is issues that go right across to assisted dying that are moral issues that people are worried about, we do not seem to be able to find the vehicles by which these issues can be debated in a way that commends itself to the country.
Ah well, it was worth a go.