HUMOUR: If only it was called ‘Prime Minister’s Answers’

The original idea of Prime Minister’s Question Time was to hold the Executive to account. The thought of anyone managing to do that was laughable even twenty years ago, and then Tony Blair’s sloppy approach to constitutional niceties ensured its status as a relic. If you can start wars and stop secret police enquiries without batting an eyelid, then being asked a lot of impertinent questions by The Party Opposite is hardly going to produce sleepless nights.

Gordon Brown has moved PMQs on yet again, in two ways. First, he uses the session as a way to pour forth statistics unrelated to the question asked. And second, if there be no numbers available on the tip of his tongue, he turns to his favourite state, sanctimonious anger. The exercise is thus rendered pointless for everyone except him, being parallel to the old adage about teaching a pig to sing: you don’t get a song, and it annoys the pig.

Of late, Brown has also stuffed the sessions with more sycophantic queries than I remember being present in the old days. They go along the lines of “Would the Prime Minister agree with me that compared to his encyclopaedic grasp of our situation and inestimable compassion for hardworking families, the Leader opposite is but a privileged lickspittle not worthy to sniff his armpits?” Such grovelly missions used to be handed out by the Whips to all those who’d been naughty boys and girls in the recent past: given that the questions are little more than a comprehensive ritual humiliation for the backbencher, they are (I’m told) a highly effective weapon in the armoury of discipline. I’ve no idea whether this still pertains, but I’d imagine it does.

Today’s (14.3.2010) PMQs, however, contained five ‘set-up’ questions demonstrating another Executive perversion of the occasion: to soften up the lobby correspondents and others present for something the Government is about to do. And what the ruse lacked in subtlety was more than made up by the degree of repetition.

The questions involved (in turn) women’s health, low-carbon renewables, defence spending, and two goes at unemployment problems in the North East. There are always unemployment problems in the North East. Being the nearest bit of England to Scotland (which hasn’t figured on any Westminster administration’s radar at all since Bonnie Prince Charlie) the region can be neglected without too many repercussions. Also, letting the North East rot is a form of revenge: a famous march once from Jarrow to London in the 1930s broke the Nation’s heart, and put enormous pressure on the PM of the day Baldwin. The Establishment has never forgiven the Geordies for this act of unwarranted independence.

The one thing all five questions offered was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to say ‘investment not cuts’. As even he can manage this without Spoonerist consequences, he made the most of his chance by using the phrase no less than eight times.

To bunker-watchers, the reason was obvious: as revealed in these columns a few short days ago, the OddBalls of Whelan-MacNeill have stormed the Treasury and are as I write forcing poor Mr Darling to write the sort of Budget that will attract the core Labour vote, along with planeloads of IMF auditors gagging to get busy with their red pencils. And as the theme of this fantasy financial report is to be Investment Not Cuts, it was felt necessary to unite (oops) the nation behind this patriotic mantra. It is, if you will, a sort of suicidal jingoism.

So bored was David Cameron by this, he chose to use up all his questions with one multiple-alternative enquiry about BA picket lines. Somebody really does need to explain the porcine melody lesson to Dave, because week in week out he persists in trying to squeeze a note out of Brown’s curly tail. Yet I fear he may be greatly encouraged after today, because the PM did actually fess up at one point and say his Chilcot evidence on defence spending was wrong. Ironically, the accusation wasn’t Cameron’s.

As it was, yet another chance to indict the Prime Minister for perjury was missed by the MP for Banbury, Wide Tony Baldry. Foolishly, this well-meaning young man chose to trip up the Trouser Snake on total defence spending, as opposed to simply directing honourable members to the MoD’s website record of Iraq spending – a page which proves beyond any doubt that Gordon fibbed for Scotland at Chilcot on the subject of his alleged generosity to our armed forces.

This is now a well-established Slogger hobby horse, as is the danger represented by Tesco to Britain’s community culture. So when a female Libdem MP questioned the ease with which this store group seems able to sell royal children into slavery with impunity, I was reassured by the PMs answer confirming that “local planning decisions are not for the consideration of this house”.

Well if they aren’t, why do we have MPs supposed to represent their constituents – who are (let’s face it) local, geographywise?

Many questions are indeed asked during this weekly charade, and the principle of holding our leaders to account is more important today than ever. But most of the questions create more questions afterwards – either because the questions aren’t addressed at all, or are answered via a surreal combination of evasion and deviation from the point.

My solution would be to rule any Prime Ministerial answer out of order which hadn’t, as such, answered the question. But Speaker Bercow is a moderniser, and such ideas are rooted ineluctably in the past. The principle of Forward Not Back would therefore rule out such a suggestion.