PMQs verdict: 750 years later… so much for democracy
The establishment wants to celebrate British democracy this week – but PMQs served to remind us exactly what's wrong with the current system.
It was a question from Mark Reckless, the Ukip defector, which stuck out from all the others. What he said doesn't matter much; it was the prime minister's reply that was important. "Mr Farage said 'we're going to have to move to an insurance-based system of healthcare'," David Cameron said. "That is the Ukip policy – privatise the NHS. I say never!" Here was the PM, directly attacking Nigel Farage on the floor of the Commons. It reminded us all just how little Ukip's policies attract criticism in parliament: their lack of representation makes them virtually immune. So the sight of Cameron taking on Farage directly was an unusual one.
Contrast this with the main exchanges, when Miliband and Cameron did what they've been doing for years yet again. Their argument over the economy boils down to a question of whether you think living standards are terrible or not. This is the issue, more than any other, which will decide the general election, but in the Commons it presents us with nothing more than an ugly stalemate. The kind of stalemate, in fact, that has made PMQs – and British politics – so tedious.
Cameron spends 99.9% of his time bashing the man sitting opposite him, so for him to take even a passing swipe at the Ukip leader was unusual. The truth is Farage escapes this sort of scrutiny right now. It's what helps make Ukip such an attractive vote for the disgruntled 'where's the protest vote?' type. Farage wants to get into the Commons, and Ukip may end up with a sizeable contingent of MPs as a result. But for now, they are excluded from the place, to their benefit.
— Shirley (@shirleykay11) January 19, 2015
If the debate over the economy seemed staid, at least it was about a decisive issue. The questioning, from all sides of the House, over the Iraq inquiry report's delay demonstrated just how irrelevant these sessions can be to ordinary people's lives.
Of course it's important that we learn the lessons of what went wrong, but gripes about the delay are entirely misplaced. Miliband and Cameron were reduced to squabbling over minor points about when they decided to back an inquiry in the first place. Even Sir Menzies Campbell, a doughty enemy of the Iraq War, stood up to back Cameron in such forceful terms that the PM jumped up at the end to thank him for it. The time spent on this topic was wasted. There are many more things that matter more to real peoples' lives.
Former Lib Dem Leader Sir Ming Campbell says Chilcot inquiry delays down to ill health, not deliberate delays on part of witnesses #pmqs
— Matt Foster (@mlpfoster) January 21, 2015
As PMQs wrapped up, there came an event which underlined just how irrelevant this process really is. Normally, 12:30 on a Wednesday heralds lunchtime for MPs. It usually prompts a mass exodus from the chamber as parliamentarians hurry to their dining tables.
Not today. All was still, apart from Harriet Harman leaning forwards, ready to leap up and leave the chamber. She hesitated, because none of the other frontbenchers around her were moving: David Cameron, Ed Miliband and everyone else were waiting supinely for something. The Speaker stood up and began to read a statement.
— House of Commons (@HouseofCommons) January 21, 2015
2015, he told MPs, has lots of anniversaries. It's 800 years since Magna Carta and 750 years since Simon de Montfort's parliament, but also 600 years since Agincourt, 50 years since the Race Relations Act, 20 years since the Disability Discrimination Act and, 200 years since Waterloo. This was all important, the Speaker told MPs. They listened politely – initially, at least. Their attention span was as brittle as a school assembly's listening to a speech from the headmaster.
Slowly they lost interest. Bercow was outlining all the useful ways in which parliament could use this opportunity to improve its standing, and how MPs could win over voters and reaffirm exactly what the Commons is for. What an opportunity this was for them to improve voter engagement.
MPs started talking to themselves. They chuckled to each other, they pulled out their phones, they rolled their eyes. They just couldn't muster up the concentration or resolve to listen to Bercow telling them about the "artistic representations" of the banners in Westminster Hall, or the significance of changes to parliament tending to come from the "bottom-up". Diane Abbott even hoisted her handbag on to her lap and mouthed the words 'come on'.
It's not Bercow's fault, but these anniversaries are only serving to highlight one thing: even after all these centuries, we still haven't got democracy quite right. So MPs are making a big mistake in writing this off as a historic irrelevance. It's precisely the failure to change PMQs and everything like it which is going to cost some of them their seats.
Voters think Ukip is separate from the rough-and-tumble of the Commons and every party that associates with it, and are going to reward Ukip accordingly. That's their way of celebrating democracy in 2015.
— May2015 (@May2015NS) January 20, 2015