This week's Prime Minister's Questions had Tory MPs bursting out of their seats to ask Boris Johnson some lovely easy questions. There were more than usual whose contribution to the session was merely to ask him to agree with them that he had the right priorities and was doing a great job.
Claire Coutinho, recently-elected as Conservative MP for East Surrey, gave the Prime Minister a chance for a breather right after his stint sparring with Jeremy Corbyn with this question:
“'My constituents in East Surrey care enormously about climate change. Does my right hon. Friend agree that yesterday’s news that the UK’s carbon emissions have been reduced by a third over the past 10 years is a fantastic and important Conservative achievement, and will he set out his plans to continue this progress?’
Not long after, Shaun Bailey popped up with this one:
“'Communities like mine in West Bromwich West are grateful for this Government’s commitment to 366 police officers for the west midlands. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that, unlike the Labour police and crime commissioner, who is decimating communities like mine in Tipton with the closure of our police station, this Government are committed to keep our communities safe through investment in the police and tougher sentences for the criminals who are ruining the lives of my constituents in Tipton?’
And then there were these two questions from Blyth Valley MP Ian Levy, and Peter Bone.
“'Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensure that Blyth Valley benefits from the Government’s ambition to unite and level up across this fantastic country?'
“'Last Thursday, in the dead of night, the Prime Minister made a secret visit to Kettering General Hospital. There was no media entourage. This was no photo call; he had come to listen. He listened to staff. He listened to patients, and he left at 3.30 am. One patient said, “I thought Boris was a bit of a dopey bloke, who doesn’t really know what’s going on, but he was a lovely bloke and actually caring to all other patients.” Prime Minister, what did you learn from your listening visit?'
To be fair to Peter Bone, he doesn't often ask helpful questions at Prime Minister's Questions and he's not known for being someone with lofty ministerial ambitions either. So perhaps it was even more striking that he asked a supportive question than that a bunch of recently-elected MPs keen to make a good impression were similarly gentle.
The reason for this flood of support is that the government has not had the easiest of weeks with various accusations that Johnson hasn't been paying close enough attention to the flooding in various parts of the country or to the rise of the coronavirus. Then there is the matter of the bullying allegations against Priti Patel, which came up repeatedly at this session. Tory MPs are by and large very keen to rally to the Home Secretary's defence, suspecting that there is a civil service witch hunt underway. They also don't want the government to look rattled by this row, or indeed by the 'part-time Prime Minister' line levelled by Labour.
So pointless questions can be useful at Prime Minister's Questions, as they show the rest of us that the government is having a slightly tougher time, and help us to gauge the feeling within the Conservative party about how ministers are riding that storm. Clearly, there is a lot of goodwill at present.
But it's also worth pointing out that you don't need to ask a totally pointless question at this session to be loyal and show that you're a good MP worthy of promotion and other spoils. There were backbenchers who did want to extract something from the Prime Minister without being a pain in the backside, and they did so very effectively. There was a question from Paul Maynard about the drop in demand for air travel in which he asked Johnson whether he might seek a derogation for UK airlines from rules meaning they are continuing to operate half-empty flights just to keep their slots. Richard Graham asked this (rather long) question about supporting businesses affected by coronavirus:
“'As the Government prepare the nation for the worst of the coronavirus, while working for the best, now is the time to wash our hands and pull together, so does the Prime Minister agree that we need in place a robust plan to cover any significant cash-flow losses for businesses, so that employees and their mortgages, rents and benefits will still be paid? Will the Treasury consider delaying VAT and pay-as-you-earn collection, if need be? Does the Prime Minister agree that, come what may, as we saw during the devastating floods of Gloucester in 2007 and elsewhere recently, Britain will find the strength, perhaps aided by a cup of not-necessarily-Yorkshire tea, to pull through?’
There is nothing unnecessarily hostile in Graham's question. It is polite and supportive of the Prime Minister while probing him on policy. It shows the flaw in the argument that pointless questions are an important part of PMQs: you can still give your leader a bit of a breather in between angry questions from opposition MPs while also doing your job as an MP. It shouldn't be beyond the wit of any member to combine the two.