Sunday, December 04, 2005


Prime Minister's Questions-Cameron's First Taste will be a Test

Prime Minister's Questions next Wednesday is a 'must see' event. David Cameron will be crossing swords for the first time with Tony Blair and we will get some idea of the old Etonian's true mettle. Are PMQs all that important? Yes and No. No, because the general public, for the most part, are not interested and do not watch or attend to these weekly clashes. Evidence for this is provided by the fact that Hague was excellent at them, Duncan Smith hopeless and Howard pretty good but Conservative poll ratings stayed at exactly the same flatline level of 30-33% throughout the 1997-2005 period.

Yes, because the clash illustrates the 'size' of the political talent: whether they can think on their feet; master complex topics; fillet or destroy an opposing argument; present a persuasive case or exploit weakness for political benefit. Probably they matter most for what they do or fail to do for party morale on both sides. A PM who is being bested leaves his troops feeling pretty pig sick and an Opposition leader who does not perform induces even more gloom on the backbenches behind him. Being there in oppostition is one thing, having a loser as leader suggests they are going to stay much longer than they hoped. For this reason, IDS- a leader backed by only one third of Conservatives in their ballots but by party members 2-1 in the final vote- was eventually induced to stand down. Conservative MPs had become totally disillusioned with a leader who could not carry the fight to Tony Blair's government and they wanted him out.

There is another good reason why good performances at PMQs are important- the opinion of lobby correspondents and the media in general. Good performances appear on news bulletins and so escape the anomymity of Parliament but they also impress people like BBC Political editors, formerly Andrew Marr now Nick Robinson or Adam Butler from Sky News. Their views influence others in an important way, both the Westminster insiders and the public at large. Key influencers are also found in the print media like Andrew Rawnsley, Simon Jenkins, Steve Richards and Mathew D'Ancona.
Their columns will reflect their judgement of party leaders' abilities and PMQs are a crucial weekly shop window of those talents. Those people who read their columns will in their turn inlfuence others until eventually some kind of consensus is formed as to the abilities of Blair or Howard or indeed Cameron after Tuesday.

PMQs may epitomise all that is worst of Yaa-boo politics yet they provide compelling political theatre of a kind the USA for example, totally lacks. They also provide a yardstick of how our leaders conduct themselves under extreme pressure. And that, after all, is key criterion of why we elect them in the first place.

How will Cameron perform? It depends on the issues which come up of course, but Cameron will be expertly briefed and rehearsed by a team of very bright people. We saw that at Blackpool he starred when performing live but next Wednesday a few things will be different. Firstly he will not be able to learn his lines but will have to think on his feet-something he did not excell at when debating with David davis on Question Time. Secondly he will be faced, not by a friendly audience of sympathisers but by a baying pack of Labour MPs and the most accomplished exponent of political communication in the western world, who is still at or near to the peak of his powers.

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