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The ghost of PMQs past

The biggest change to PMQs in sixty years is that the PM’s answers have got longer

Artillery Row

Today offered up the last PMQs before the summer recess and some MPs – notably the self-isolating PM himself, forced to join his interrogation by video link from Chequers– were already distancing themselves from Westminster proceedings.

Other honourable members, though, readily availed themselves of the opportunity to lend their body warmth to leather benches that had been cold since April 2020 when “hybrid” proceedings were introduced to limit numbers in the Commons chamber. For most of them, scrutinising government has depended upon the strength of their wi-fi connection.

What long-term effects this experiment will bequeath remain to be seen, but on today’s showing, the Commons is a less rowdy bearpit than it was before the virus wrought its constitutional innovations.

Speaking of which, today was also, as Mr Speaker reminded members, the sixtieth anniversary of the introduction of PMQs (pedants might point out that, as prime minister, Winston Churchill began taking regular questions in 1953, although the longer format to which the current version traces its direct descent is sixty years old).

Like so many seemingly permanent features in our national life, that version began on 18 July 1961 as a trial measure. Sir Lindsay Hoyle now felt there was sufficient perspective to venture that “the experiment has been a success.”  He then mused, sotto voce, that much of its success depended upon the quality of the answers. He did not indicate to which of the 12 prime ministers that have faced PMQs since 1961 this gentle barb was directed.  But even Boris Johnson’s most fervent admirers would concede it is not the format that generally shows his talents to best effect.

21 July 2021 will not go down as a PMQs vintage edition. Indeed, for veterans of the Johnson-Starmer routine, it followed a familiar path.

Sir Keir asked successive questions that sought clarity on whether the government really was sticking to its own advice that those pinged by the NHS app needed to self-isolate. The line from ministers was muddled and inconsistent. The country was “heading for a summer of chaos” and when it comes to spreading confusion the prime minister was a “super-spreader.” The government’s latest naff slogan, “keep life moving” ought to have been “get a grip.”

This was all affable knockabout from the renowned “forensic” inquisitor

This was all affable knockabout from the renowned “forensic” inquisitor and former director of public prosecutions. None of it greatly bothered the prime minister who responded with customary long-windedness, references to the success of the vaccine rollout, and efforts to deflect questions back on to what the Leader of the Opposition would do, beyond permanently locking down the population.

As to the central allegation that government messaging was muddled, the prime minister offered unintended clarity: those who needed to isolate should isolate and that the government would shortly be changing that requirement all to ensure they did not all have to.

Reading the report in Hansard of the questions that Harold Macmillan faced in the first trial encounter sixty years ago is to discern change and continuity. The difference between how Macmillan answered questions in 1961 was that he offered generally uninformative one or two sentence replies to his interrogators. By contrast, Johnson offers two to three minute uninformative replies.

The similarity – and this is the greater surprise – is the open discourtesy that Opposition MPs showed Macmillan, phrasing their questions with none of the decorous deference that we are encouraged to believe elevated discourse in a less vulgar age. He was equally snippy and dismissive of them in reply.

With the innovation of a self-isolating prime minister beamed-in by video link, PMQs in the Covid age has certainly moved on from that presided over by SuperMac. But occupying the prime minister’s place behind the government’s despatch box sat the unflappable leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, gracing the occasion in his reassuringly timeless double-breasted tailoring. Much has changed. Much remains the same.

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