Review: Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, Punch and Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions (Biteback, 2018)
With unruly, playground insults and the use of heckling to emphasise what can seem political one-upmanship, Prime Ministers Questions (PMQs) can represent for many a vital problem with British politics. Whether it be the chorus of entitled politicians, a hard line of questioning from Jeremy Corbyn, David Cameron telling his opponent to ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’ or Theresa May assuming the air of Margaret Thatcher when haughtily asking ‘Remind you of anybody?’, the theatricality of this weekly event cannot be denied. In their new book Punch and Judy Politics Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton bring years of professional experience working in this bear-pit for Ed Miliband to highlight some of the subtle nuances that can easily be lost in the jeering and shouting. Carefully working through the preparation of both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, explaining how to ask the questions themselves, and dealing with the Chamber and a variety of other topics, Hazarika and Hamilton have written a definitive guide suitable for any follower of politics.
Early on, Hazarika and Hamilton stress that PMQs is not just a series of speeches, a debate, a courtroom cross-examination, an interview or a quiz. As a method of interrogation PMQs defies being placed as an analogous form: ‘PMQs is dangerous’, they write, ‘and it carries a potential for success or failure that few other moments in a political leader’s week can match.’ PMQs might certainly be risky for the PM, but it is also stressed that it can be a chance for the leader of the country to check-in with and ensure the effective running of his or her government: ‘This is the hidden power of PMQs: it doesn’t just make the Prime Minister accountable to Parliament, it also makes every minister and every department accountable to the Prime Minister.’ After an introductory history of PMQS Hazarika and Hamilton delve into the questions themselves. Despite ‘Questions’ being part of the title of the session, it is heavily stressed there is much more to this topic: there is the pressure of telling jokes, the risks of asking a simple question, Corbyn’s use of crowdsourcing, varying the questioner’s style and the strengths and weaknesses of changing topic across the six questions (whilst it keeps the PM on their toes it can also make the Leader of the Opposition unable to fully focus or even inconsistent).
Other chapters focus on the Leader of the Opposition, the answers provided by the PM, how deputies and stand-ins perform alongside the role of smaller parties and a brief penultimate chapter on the final PMQs for outgoing political leaders. Throughout, there is a variety of fascinating and often humorous quotidian details that, in their antipathy, are unsurprisingly kept away from public knowledge: for example, Ed Miliband’s ‘bucket of shit’, which told him of examples of friendly fire from other Labour politicians, offers a neat contrast to the folder of quotes and related material said by Cameron. Through their experience Hazarika and Hamilton explain certain aspects of PMQs that should be obvious – if the PM wants to answer a question then it is a bad question – but also constantly maintain a focus on wider political connotations. Rarely are readers able to forget the implications of PMQs, thus raising the significance of the exchanges. As such in their description of what they call the ‘joust’ they concisely assess rejoinders with this outward focus: ‘What both sides are trying to do, but fail to achieve most weeks, is to create a moment that can cut through beyond the immediate PMQS joust, and beyond Parliament itself, and even beyond that day’s television news, to say something deeper and more memorable.’ As indicated in the quote above, however, Hazarika and Hamilton often acknowledge that the brilliant moments of wit and humour or successful rejoinders that form perfect media soundbites are rare, emphasised now by the fact that May and Corbyn, the two knights now jostling in the Chamber, have made PMQs slightly boring. The characterisation, then, that ‘most PMQS are ephemeral […] important while they’re happening but forgotten by the end of the day’ is incredibly pert and especially demonstrates the insider knowledge and awareness of both writers.
Punch and Judy Politics is a meticulously well-researched book, including a plethora of interviews from politicians such as Tony Blair, Cameron, William Hague, Vince Cable and Harriet Harman. As evident from such a list, the approach adopted does not, despite both authors working for the Labour party, favour any particular party: the failures of all politicians are highlighted, and their successes duly praised. Though reference to the media is often made, especially how politicians aim for a short and pithy quote that can be used by newspapers and broadcasters, the only disappointing aspect of this volume is its lack of focus on social media, especially YouTube. Twitter is presented as little more than as a tool for journalists, politicians or parties and there is the worry that the weekly ‘winner’ of PMQs may become determined by whoever has the biggest Facebook audience. A brief search on YouTube for ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ reveals that this weekly glimpse into Westminster is uploaded by UK Parliament, whilst there is a host of compilation clips of various politicians that can capture the often humorous exchanges (a personal favourite is entitled ‘Bercow goes beast mode’ that shows Speaker John Bercow constantly berating politicians). To not include a more considered approach to social media and PMQs in the digital age is at least surprising and at worst threatens to make the work seem antiquated well before its time.
But for this problem, however, Punch and Judy Politics is an overall enjoyable, often comic, relation of the inner theatricality at the heart of the British political system. Towards the end Hazarika and Hamilton suggest that ‘PMQs is a weekly routine check-up, not major surgery’, a somewhat ironic analogy given Conservative cuts to the NHS but one that also emphasises the importance of it for the maintenance of the state of the nation. Mr Speaker, Punch and Judy Politics answers all the right questions.
The RRP of Punch and Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to PMQs is £20.