In defence of Punch & Judy politics

“They’re like squabbling children”
“How they behave is a disgrace”
“They need to grow up and have some respect”

I’m sure we’ve all heard comments like this. You may even have said them yourself.

When people tune into the news on a Wednesday evening and see the heckling, the laughing, the waving of order papers that goes in during Prime Minister’s Questions, they are often left disgusted or annoyed by what they see.

Politics is a serious business, they think, and should be treated seriously by all involved.

Since you are reading this blog, there’s a fair chance that – like me – you are a bit of a political geek.

And that means that – like me – you may spend more time watching a live feed of Parliament than you would like to admit.

So we know that most of what happens in the House of Commons is serious. It is considered. MPs speak in depth about serious subjects – with good manners. They give way to each other and they generally speak with a great deal of knowledge and consideration – clearly having spent a lot of time preparing.

Prime Minister’s Questions is only 30 minutes in a week where Parliament debates for hours & hours.

PMQs is rowdy. It is loud. It is a set piece where the spirits of the government and opposition are on display – and in which they do battle. The opposition – and other MPs – raise the issues of the day that they feel are most important. The Prime Minister defends his government – robustly.

It is somewhat unique in democracies. It is a clear opportunity to hold the executive to account. Not many democracies have this clear and direct opportunity to question the Prime Minister every week.

It’s also somewhat unique because of the layout of the House: most parliaments in the world are rounded – set in circles or semi-circles. Ours is not. The government faces the opposition across the floor, in a layout that is expressly adversarial.

Added to this, questions and answers are formulated as sound bites to fit in short news spots.

The result? Punch & Judy politics. And isn’t it glorious!

For me, PMQs is a highlight of the political week; a chance to see the cut and thrust of majoritarian politics in action. To see how well the leaders of parties stand up under pressure, what they care about, and whether their respective parties are behind them.

If people really want to see the serious stuff – it is there. It is broadcast daily on BBC Parliament and a Parliamentlive.tv feed (geek tip: you can watch committees there too).

But they don’t really, do they? They want the interesting bits – the rowdy, shouty bits.

If the critics of our Parliament are really interested in serious, considered politics – why don’t they watch more of it? Or lobby news outlets to show more of it?

I reckon the critics actually like PMQs as much as I do. And I think they also enjoy the superior feeling they derive from saying how terrible and childish our politicians are.

Long live Prime Minister’s Questions! Long live Punch & Judy politics!


Emily is the Chairman of Conservatives for Liberty. Follow her on Twitter: @ThinkEmily

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty