PMQs is the bear pit of politics — how a leader performs in the hot seat can make or break their party

Ayesha Hazarika
Ayesha Hazarika

Prime Minister’s Questions is very Marmite. Some people hate it and some people really REALLY hate it. It is often the only glimpse people get into the House of Commons and it couldn’t be a worse shop window: noisy and, at times, so childish it makes a primary-school playground look dignified.

I spent many years of my life cooped up with political leaders every Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning helping them to prepare for the weekly joust and have written a book with my former colleague Tom Hamilton about the thrill and the terror of the experience.

It is out tomorrow — Punch and Judy Politics. In the beginning, writing the book was cheaper than therapy, but it in the end it reminded us why PMQs still matters and why our current political leaders should step up.

It’s an important party management exercise. If you can show your troops (especially those pesky ones who don’t like you) that you can do the business at the despatch box, sock it to your opponent and win the argument, that does wonders for morale and discipline.

William Hague told us that after the Tories got smashed by Labour in 1997 and Tony Blair had a massive majority, Hague and his team used the fact that he was a star performer — especially with his humour — to help to restore a little dignity to the party.

It’s an important opportunity to set out and test big strategic messages and those killer attack lines. Blair famously captured John Major’s excruciating political dilemma over Europe (sound familiar?) in an exchange which reached a crescendo of just three short words: “Weak, weak, weak.” It was devastating for Major.

Many we spoke to said that if Labour had a better performer at the despatch box, they would have finished Theresa May off by now. Like those before them, May and Jeremy Corbyn despise PMQs, but, to give them credit, they have achieved what many leaders have tried to do. They have taken the heat out of PMQs by being underwhelming, although Team Corbyn have cannily turned the occasion into an event that generates rich content for social media in which he always wins.

But we should want our leaders to care about doing well at PMQs. Having a coherent argument and being able to debate with wit, skill and verve in real life — not on social media — should matter. Especially right now.

PMQs is the bear pit of politics and has many flaws, but we would miss its raucous spirit if we sanitised proceedings. We don’t want our parliament to be docile and cowed like Beijing or Pyongyang.

Blair said at his final PMQs. “From the first to the last, I never stopped fearing it … the tingling apprehension I felt at three minutes to 12 today, I felt as much ten years ago and every bit as acute. It is in that fear where respect is retained.”

And he was right. Anything which our political leaders fear so much is surely a good thing for democracy.

  • Punch and Judy Politics by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton is out tomorrow (Biteback, £20)

A truly modern moment for the royals

The Markle debacle and all the drama about her poor pa makes me adore Meghan all the more.

I just love the fact that she’s so different from the perfect blonde, upper-class, society girl we all assumed would bag Britain’s most eligible bachelor.

Meghan Markle (Rex Features)

We still operate a rigid class system where power and privilege, especially right at the top, is still white and exclusive.

That’s why the visual aspect of the wedding will be such a big moment. Black faces may be seen at royal events in a professional capacity but rarely in a personal one.

I hope Mama Markle walks her daughter down the aisle — what a glorious sign of modernity that would be.

*Tessa Jowell was always incredibly kind to me. Especially as a fresh new special adviser covering women and equality issues in an environment that was a bit of a boys’ club.

She also reached out to me after I lost my job with the Labour Party and was terrified about the future. She took me for tea to the Wolseley and gave me wise counsel. Don’t be bitter. Be the bigger person. Don’t bear grudges. Build bridges and don’t be scared to be nice to people — especially on the way up as you could meet them again on the way down.

So many people have a Tessa tale and she leaves a legacy of love. In an era of unhinged political nastiness and cruelty, especially within the Labour party, we should take a leaf out of her book. You don’t have to be fuelled by hate. And you may actually achieve more. Be more Tessa. RIP.

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