Prime Minister’s Questions is now regarded in Westminster as being even more pointless than it used to be before. The general weakness of Jeremy Corbyn and his parliamentary party’s ongoing but powerless dissatisfaction with the Labour leader means that it is rarely a session where the Opposition lays a glove on the Prime Minister - and even more unusually a session which Labour MPs leave feeling proud of their party. It’s not just Labour that makes the session feel a bit miserable: even when Corbyn does score a hit, as he has done on social care in recent weeks, Tory backbenchers forget that their job as members of the legislature is to scrutinise the executive and instead squander their questions by sucking up to the Prime Minister with pointless observations about jobs fairs, motherhood, and apple pie. And that’s when they’re not making strange mooing sounds at the other side.
But it was not so long ago that Labour was promising to shake up Prime Minister’s Questions and make it more relevant to the public. Jeremy Corbyn produced with a flourish (or as much of a flourish as he could muster) a series of questions from members of the public at his first session. He then tried to calm the session down by fixing any troublemakers with the gimlet eye of the angry geography teacher. Sadly that teacher seems to have been replaced by a rather more disorganised and grumpy supply teacher who has largely dropped the ‘Beryl from Berwick’ questions. So have the public changed their minds about the way PMQs works?
After Corbyn’s first PMQs, YouGov ran a poll examining the attitudes of voters to Corbyn’s stint at the dispatch box. There hasn’t been any polling since, and the session has changed a great deal, so I asked the pollsters to run the same questions again last week. Only 2 per cent of adults surveyed had watched the session in full, while 7 per cent said they had seen or heard clips on the news. Just under a third (32 per cent) said they had seen the session before, and 54 per cent said they had never seen it.
Of those who had at least seen some of the session, 77 per cent agreed that there was ‘too much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question’, with 38 per cent strongly agreeing with that statement, and 39 per cent saying they tended to agree. Only 16 per cent disagreed that the debate was ‘too noisy and aggressive’ against 53 per cent who thought that it was, and 28 per cent who neither agreed nor disagreed. A greater proportion of voters (40 per cent) disagreed that the session had put them off politics than those who said it had put them off (23 per cent) or those who neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement. And just 18 per cent of voters who had seen the debate agreed that the MPs behaved professionally.
Voters’ attitudes had largely hardened since that previous poll. In the 2015 survey, conducted by YouGov for the Hansard Society, a greater proportion of voters had either seen the whole session or watched clips on the news (47 per cent in total). On whether there was too much political point scoring, 46 per cent agreed with the statement, 25 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed, and 26 per cent disagreed. The greatest change was on whether the debate was ‘too noisy and aggressive’: 23 per cent agreed, 33 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed and 41 per cent disagreed. But the session was strangely more off-putting: 54 per cent agreed that it had put them off politics, with 10 per cent agreeing and 34 per cent saying they neither agreed nor disagreed.
But it’s fair to say that no-one has yet managed to ‘shake up’ PMQs. For what it’s worth, the most off-putting bits of the session often come from the backbenches, either in the form of those strange mooing sounds (which are so very different to the fabulous and witty heckles that certain MPs produce) or in the form of the terrible patsy questions about jobs fairs. The culture of the session goes far beyond that of a leader crowdsourcing his questions – or reverting to the normal way of doing things, as even Corbyn has had to do.