PMQs: Ming v Gordon

by Stephen Tall on October 10, 2007

If you missed today’s heated clashes in the House of Commons, you can watch them on the BBC website here, or listen to them on The Guardian website here.

The exchanges which will be replayed on tonight’s news bulletins are those between Gordon Brown and David Cameron. I was surprised once again by how poorly the Prime Minister performed – today was obviously going to be a tricky day, and it was unlikely he was going to come out of it looking best. But his replies were weak in content and uncertain in delivery. The Tory leader was his usual fluent and witty self, though his tendency to become shrill gave Mr Brown his only good line: “This is the man who wanted an end to the Punch and Judy show!”

The exchange between Ming and Gordon was much shorter – it’s about 12 minutes in, and lasts 90 seconds – and is reproduced below. Both questions are perfectly valid, and make good points. One thing I’ve noticed about Ming’s approach, though, is that he asks very short questions. This has three effects:

(i) What he says tends to get lost in the hubbub, as opposition MPs barrack him. He often ends up sitting down before anyone’s properly heard his question.

(ii) He speaks for a much shorter period of time than Mr Cameron. One of the Tory leader’s questions today was 125 words long, three times the length of Ming’s first question. As a result, Ming rarely gives himself the opportunity to give any context to what the Lib Dem approach would be. For instance, today he mentioned the party’s policy of cutting income tax to 16p. But without explaining that this would be paid for by increasing taxation on pollution and the wealth of the super-rich it handed Mr Brown the too-easy comeback that Lib Dem figures don’t add up.

(iii) A question is in itself unlikely to get replayed on the evening news. The Tory leader uses his time to preface his question with a couple of soundbites, so beloved by broadcast news editors as they can be easily spliced up for that evening’s news package.

Of course, PMQs is a ridiculous charade, a pointless weekly half-hour that achieves precisely nothing for the good governance of the nation. But it still matters, both for the morale of the respective Parliamentary parties, and to the journalists watching who will base their judgments of the leaders in part on how well they perform in the crucible of the Commons.

Ming has improved immeasurably from his first handful of appearances which he fumbled (still remembered 18 months later, which points to PMQs’ opinion-forming significance). But he has yet to take his performance to the next level, and prove that he can both rattle the Prime Minister, and ensure the Lib Dem message is heard a few hours later on the news bulletins.

Anyway, judge for yourselves…

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): As the Prime Minister has stolen Liberal Democrat policies in order to help the better-off, will he also steal Liberal Democrat policies in order to assist lower and middle-income families, and cut the basic rate of income tax to 16p in the pound?

The Prime Minister: We are cutting the basic rate of income tax, from 22p to 20p in the pound—but what we will not do is follow Liberal party policy, which would cut the basic rate by another 4p, costing £12 billion and putting the public finances at risk. In exactly the same way as the Conservative party, they would put the management of the economy at risk. We will not follow that policy.

Sir Menzies Campbell: Let us remember that the Prime Minister’s cut in the basic rate is at the expense of some of the poorest people in the country. Was not the most glaring omission in yesterday’s pre-Budget report statement the absence of any proposals for reform of the unfair council tax? Council tax is set to rise by twice the rate of inflation. How fair is that for low and middle-income families?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman should look at his own proposals. First, he faces an £18 billion black hole in his proposals. Secondly, he is not offering people a free gift on council tax, as he wants to replace it by local income tax, which would mean people paying 3p in the pound more. Thirdly, at every point where I have costed the Liberal party proposals, nothing adds up. The Liberals would be better going back to the drawing board.