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Why David Cameron should answer PMQs twice a week

Questions to the Prime Minister take place today at three o'clock rather than mid-day, because the Commons is sitting to a Tuesday timetable (even though it's Wednesday).

This provokes the question: should PMQs be changed?  Should the session once again take place twice a week, perhaps on Tuesdays and Thursdays - as pre-1997 - rather than once a week?

Whether so or not, how should it adapt to the novelty of a Coalition Government? More radically, what's the point of PMQs at all?  Isn't a fusty, cranky anachronism in this thrilling age of "new politics"?

Perhaps the best way of answering these questions is to look at how our two most electorally successful recent Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, dealt with PMQs.

According to Charles Moore - Thatcher's biographer, and the Greatest Living Englishman - the three-times victorious Prime Minister didn't like the Commons. Even at her most successful, she never quite got out of her mind the conviction that the place was, in many ways, an Old Boys Club.  This helps to explain why she was always on top of her brief in the Chamber: she always feared that she'd be caught out, and was nervous (though it usually didn't show), watchful, attentive.

The twice-weekly ordeal of PMQs thus became for her a means of swotting up on what her Ministers were up to, finding out what her backbenchers cared about and, more broadly, keeping in touch with whatever was going on at the time.

Charles told me earlier this morning that, for her, this arrangement had another advantage - no formal lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  "The Foreign Office was always insisting that it was vital to the national interest for her to entertain the Emir of Al-Muhajiroun, or whatever,' he said.  "PMQs gave her an excuse to refuse."

I haven't spoken to any of Tony Blair's biographers.  But why do so when his view's on the record?  "I've never pretended to be a great House of Commons man," he said during his last PMQs, "but I can pay the House the greatest compliment I can by saying that from first to last I never stopped fearing it."

This presumably explains why PMQs was cut from two sessions a week to one after 1997 - though that single session was extended by half an hour, guaranteeing no overall time loss.  I remember talk at the time of how this "modernising" reform, part of a "new politics", would allow more probing, serious, less partisan questioning of the Prime Minister.  Needless to say, this didn't happen. 

As in so many instances, the Thatcher practice is preferable to Blair's.  PMQs should be broken up into two sessions, and moved to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.  Some adjustment be made in the procedure, no doubt, to take into account the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from an Opposition to a Government Party.

By the way, the Thursday timetabling's important: such a move would stop MPs sloping off to their constituencies after the Wednesday PMQs, as some of them were prone to do post-1997.  Ideally, the new Business Committee of the Commons - not the Executive - would take or confirm the decision, but this, as matters stand, looks to be the Prime Minister's.

So if David Cameron wants to keep an eye on his Departments, an ear open to his backbenchers, his nose to the grindstone, and his sixth sense attuned to whatever's in the news, he knows what to do - especially if he wants to skip lunch with the Emir of Al-Muhajiroun.

Paul Goodman


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