Forget McMafia – PMQs is the most addictive TV show on right now
Words Greg Taylor
Imagine that, every Wednesday at work, you had to take 50 minutes of questions from a crowd of screaming, red-faced, apoplectic enemies whose one goal is to make you lose your job. All of them armed with anecdotes, statistics and barbs designed to humiliate you and make you falter as you try to show yourself to be a competent leader, a visionary… even just a functional human being.
Like a gladiator of yore, a sweat-soaked shift replacing a metallic breastplate, you march through the jeering throngs and sit nervously, waiting to orate for your life. Again. All the facts you’ve crammed into your head are held in the massive folder grasped in your clammy palms, but leafing through it will make you look dozy and ill-prepared. It’s the roughest of comfort blankets.
And you can’t even rely on support from your own team behind you. Those knife-wielding sycophants, those smiling besuited assassins, are pre-orgasmic with secret – or not so secret – schadenfreude at the possibility of your tumbling into a verbal mantrap that will hold you tight until you’re hung to rot on the media’s always-erect crucifix of opprobrium. For despite the agony and the horror that comes with it, those people behind you are simply dying take your place.
You scan the hundreds of faces opposite – a Boschian vision of demonic smirks, glares and disgust, noses sniffing the fetid air for a hint of fear or – whisper it – blood. Finally you stagger to your feet, pushing against a deafening wall of grunts, jeers and rustling papers threatening to topple you into the black abyss of ignominy that’s suddenly yawned open in front of you. It’s fight or flight, and there’s nowhere to run.
Welcome to Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQs to the acronymically correct. Our political equivalent of a medieval tomato pelting where only the most dexterous and bold escape unspattered. It’s no wonder Harold Wilson, who was Prime Minister for six years between 1964 and 1976, would get himself sloshed before facing the raging tumult, while Tony Blair feared his heart was giving in during some particularly vicious exchanges.
In his memoirs, Blair remembered: “PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question. You know that scene in Marathon Man where the evil Nazi doctor played by Laurence Olivier drills through Dustin Hoffman’s teeth? At around 11.45 on Wednesday mornings, I would have swapped 30 minutes of PMQs for 30 minutes of that.” Quite.
If PMQs is a nightmare to the poor wobbly-kneed sod trying to survive it, it’s a dream for the MPs who get called to ask a question.
For the lickspittle, pimpled young keeno craving promotion it’s a great opportunity to slather saccharine praise on the boss who, grateful for a kind word, will certainly return it in kind. “Will the Prime Minister agree with me”, they might begin, “that her wisdom eclipses Solomon’s, her oratory outshines Churchill’s, and her wardrobe is the stuff of Anna Wintour’s damp dreams.” Cue groans and obscene hand-gestures from enemies, back-slaps and approving grunts from fellow toadies, and an utterly anodyne and self-congratulatory press release for the South Thrippington Gazette.
For the cunning linguist, PMQs are a rare opportunity to give the UK’s Chief Executive a metaphorical kicking during the highest-profile event in the weekly political circus. The reporters are watching, ready to make or break a career with a phrase of praise or condemnation, and a particularly juicy put-down could make it all the way to the national evening news – a consummation devoutly to be wished by all fizzy up-and-comers.
During his first outing as Opposition leader, David Cameron’s stinging blow to Blair – “You were the future once” – encapsulated the tiredness of the New Labour programme and signalled the rise of the young Tory who would become PM only a few years later. Vince Cable’s snarky comparison of Gordon Brown to Stalin and then Mr Bean exposed the dour Scot’s famed belligerence and arguable incompetence, and haunted Brown until he left office. Tony Banks’s visualising of Margaret Thatcher as a “sex-starved boa constrictor”, however, was swiftly expunged from most right-thinking people’s imaginations as swiftly as possible.
Prime Ministers spend hours hunkered down in Downing Street with advisers, speechwriters and lackeys, honing retorts and boning up on the hobby-horses of the MPs who will be asking questions (they know who will be asking the questions, but not what they’ll actually be asking).
It was no wonder that Cameron, who once briefed John Major for his own PMQs appearances, was so implacable when on the spot. Though even he came undone when, in an unguarded response to Labour MP Angela Eagle in 2011, he implored her to “Calm down dear”, a throwaway Michael Winner quote that sparked an unholy row about privilege and patrimony that rumbles on to this day. On the other hand, his dismissal of Ed Balls as a “muttering idiot” in 2012 earned him support from across the Commons, stunning the belligerent wide-eyed pugilist into a much-appreciated silence.
If PMQs has been criticised (and celebrated) as a rancorous storm of put-downs and one-liners, one man has emerged to try and change all that. Jeremy Corbyn, with his ponderous style and aversion to wit, has replaced barbed, carefully-honed attacks with long-winded, crowdsourced questions designed to take the traditional heat out of the exchanges and secure actual answers from nonplussed Prime Ministers. It’s more difficult to fire off an insult when the query comes (purportedly) from angry old Gavin from Hartlepool. But his lackadaisical style has done little to endear him to the ever-hungry piranhas of the press lobby, who crave soundbites, slanders, and blood in the water.
Also battling against the rambunctious ribaldry is the Speaker, John Bercow, whose thankless job it is to keep order. Like a punctilious Dickensian schoolmaster trying to hold sway over a mob of unruly delinquents, Bercow’s grandiose put-downs to recalcitrant MPs have become very much a part of the vaudeville of PMQs. “Order! Ooooorder!” he is wont to intone as eardrums begin to bleed (you can’t appreciate how much like a cattle market the Commons is unless you’re there), “the public do not want to hear all this caterwauling and claptrap and you ought to know better”.
Given the number of people who tune into PMQs every week across the world, and the impact that a well-timed quip or a faltered response (or even a maniacal laugh) can have, only half of that statement appears to be true.
PMQs can be watched every Wednesday when Parliament is sitting on BBC Parliament, and most news channels.
© UK Parliament/Mark Duffy