Simon Hoggart bemoans the tedium of the new grown-up prime minister’s questions: the atmosphere “kindly, thoughtful, concerned”; David Cameron admitting when he didn’t know the answer to a question; any jibes that he did get in being “good-natured digs, the kind of banter old friends might use against each other”. “Gosh it was dull”, Hoggart observes.
Don’t panic, Simon. Every new prime minister starts by insisting that PMQs will now be a serious opportunity to debate policy, with no more “Punch and Judy politics”. That was the stated reason for Tony Blair changing PMQs from two fifteen-minute sessions to one half-hour session each week, and I’m sure similar noises were made when Gordon Brown became PM. I certainly recall the death of John Smith (and the bipartisan expressions of regret that followed) leading to claims that his legacy would be an end to the worst excesses of adversarial politics, not least at PMQs.
In each case, though, the realities of adversarial politics soon reasserted themselves. Once the Tory/Lib Dem government starts to actually do things (in particular, once the budget takes place on 22 June ), once things start to go wrong, once the pressures of office mean Cameron can no longer feel so coolly on top of things, then Simon Hoggart and his fellow sketchwriters will once again be able to revel in the weekly political boxing match.
Adversarialism is deeply rooted in our political culture. That’s partly because the British people like adversarial politics, more than we perhaps care to admit (just as Bill Bryson suggests that the many strange and evocative place names in England reflect the fact that we just like living in places called Nether Wallop or Bishop’s Widdle).
But it’s also a reflection of something healthy about our political life. We don’t have a legislature composed of a political class engaged in maintaining a cosy, self-serving consensus – though in recent decades we’ve moved uncomfortably closer to that – but a parliament in which MPs represent the interests of their constituents. And often (not always, but often) those interests compete or are in conflict with one another. The adversarial “Punch and Judy” of PMQs reflects this; a “grown-up” PMQs would not only be dull, but a further slide into the managerial consensus of a separate political class.