David Cameron’s performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were better when he was Leader of the Opposition. As Prime Minister, he is alienating back-benchers and coming off second-best to Ed Miliband. Could this work in Cameron’s favour? Asks Ellis Wiggins.
Wednesday, 12 o’clock, and once again the attention of the House of Commons turns to Prime Minister’s Questions. David Cameron rises to the Despatch Box, and in solemn tones recounts the week’s casualties of war. Then, in a single breath, he lists his engagements for the day: the catchphrase of PMQs. With a supplementary of a backbencher easily swatted aside, Cameron settles back down on the green-covered government front bench, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with his colleagues.
Suddenly, a rumble of approval builds up opposite, as Ed Milliband takes his place. Within minutes, the previously calm and collected Cameron looks ruffled and unnerved, alternating between stumbling sentences and hoarse shouts of anger, as the smirking opposition looks on.
Where is the smooth orator of the pre-coalition days? What has happened to the cool, quick-witted top dog of PMQs, the man who ran rings around the clunky Gordon Brown?
Not so long ago, Cameron displayed an undisputed mastery of the weekly parliamentary sideshow. Now, week after week, Milliband is able to put our Prime Minister in a spot he finds it increasingly difficult to escape from. Oddly, the PM deals easily with the supplementary questions of backbenchers, swiftly breezing through them without breaking into a sweat. Yet when it comes to the six questions of the Leader of the Opposition, the set piece of the entire occasion, the PM’s usual dominance seems to skip out of the room for ten minutes.
In order to understand the reason for this inconsistency, we need to go to the root of the problem. All Ed Milliband needs to flummox our Prime Minister is confront him with a set of figures or statistics. Looking painfully uncomfortable, Cameron, instead of tackling the questions head on, relies on bluster and evasion, trying unsuccessfully to ‘answer the question’ without actually answering the question. This becomes more obvious when Milliband lingers on the same point, hammering it home for the whole country to see. Cameron looks weak, hollow, and leave a loyal supporter with a bad taste in the mouth.
Perhaps one reason for Cameron’s declining performance is his move to the government benches. It is true to say that Opposition Leaders find it easier to ask hectoring questions than Prime Ministers find it to answer them. Tony Blair, in his years of Opposition, had a command of the Despatch Box that often saw him backing John Major into a corner. But once Blair found himself sitting on the Government bench, this
command would quickly vanish, as William Hague would regularly best the ‘great communicator’.
On top of this, some Prime Ministers have had consistently poor records when it comes to PMQs. Gordon Brown never really stamped his authority on his three years taking questions, nor did John Major (though Major did have one or two moments to shine – see the PMQs after his resignation as leader in 1995 for a particular example).
But is Cameron’s distinctly average performance at the dispatch box really such a problem? If history teaches us anything it is that the electorate takes a pretty dim view of those who shine at PMQs: think of the resounding ‘no’ from the voters given to Kinnock or Hague. Speaker Bercow spends a lengthy amount of time reminding MPs that the public has no taste for the knockabout of these kinds of occasions, and there could be some truth in this. While the public might enjoy the parliamentary sideshow, they still want mature debate, and have no appetite for political opportunism or point-scoring.
Still, a good performance at Prime Minister’s Questions can significantly boost morale for Conservative backbenchers, which would not be a bad thing right now. Cameron needs to work hard to maintain at least a reasonable performance at Question Time, keeping backbenchers cheering behind him and not sharpening their knives. However, he needs to avoid the pitfalls of the past, and avoid ending up like Kinnock: witty and sharp-tongued, but ultimately unelectable.