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PMQs sketch: a subdued week, but the bear-pit will be back

8 January 2014

5:22 PM

8 January 2014

5:22 PM

It’s a whole new kind of politics. The subdued atmosphere at PMQs had two possible causes. First, the tragic death of Paul Goggins had stunned the House into near silence. Ed Miliband seemed close to tears as he paid his tribute.

‘Labour has lost one of its own, and one of its best.’

Moving to more substantial issues, Miliband chose the neutral topics of monsoons and roulette machines.

He saluted the work of the flood-wardens and the efforts of courageous citizens who had leapt to each others’ aid during the storms. Cameron replied by vowing that river defences would be reinforced with huge sandbags stuffed with cash.

Then Miliband moved to fixed-odds betting machines. These electronic banditos are capable of grabbing up to £300 per minute from the pockets of self-deluding and ignorant fantasists, (most of whom seem to live in Labour constituencies, for some reason.) Miliband politely asked if local councils might be given the power to ban these beeping, blinking muggers.

They have that power already, said Cameron.

I don’t believe they have, said Miliband.

This debate was so tame that Nick Robinson, on the BBC, hinted at a second reason for the soporific atmosphere. The parties have signed a truce to raise the tone of PMQs.

Then Cameron blew it. He made a blatantly political point by linking the gambling scourge to the rest of Labour’s legacy. In 2001, he said, Labour had relaxed the rules on high street gambling and created the conditions for a social catastrophe. Same thing with 24-hour drinking and the Wild West culture in the City. Betting, booze and banks. All Labour’s fault.

This sparked the session into life. Miliband had blown his chance to score points but his backbenchers rushed to do the job on his behalf.

John Mann revealed that ‘the cuts’ had forced police in Bassetlaw to patrol rural villages on double decker buses. When they spotted a burglar they rang the bell in the hope that the felon would climb aboard and into their clutches. Mr Mann’s gag was skewered by the Number 10 elves who had discovered that crime in Bassetlaw has plummeted.

‘By 27 percent!’ shouted Cameron.

And so the usual uproar reasserted itself. Afterwards, the BBC pundits discussed the tone of the debate. Chukka Umunna expressed his hope that PMQs might one day become a sensible and informed exchange of views conducted in pious, High Table tones. But all MPs say that. Not because they believe it but because it makes them seem public-spirited and statesmanlike. And they miss the point. PMQs is more like a compulsion than a sober attempt to apply reason to the processes of government.

Many viewers tune in each Wednesday in order to complain that there’s nothing worth watching. Others, like me, follow the weekly farce in an auto-erotic frenzy of masochistic despair. It’s ugly, it’s painful, it’s ludicrous, it’s sad, it’s futile, it’s spiritually lowering, and it leaves us covered in welts and bruises. But we love it. We can’t get away from it. We know that out there, somewhere, there are national parliaments that operate in a calm and high-minded fashion. But which parliaments? Where are they? We haven’t a clue. Because we don’t watch them. The cage-fight, the bear-pit, is what we crave. And so do MPs, in the end. They claim to yearn for a more sedate and grown-up atmosphere but really all they want is viewers. And that means blood.

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