Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is very keen that Prime Minister’s Questions last its allotted half an hour, rather than turning it into the hour-long drone-fest that John Bercow indulged in during his tenure. Today he had to cut off one MP who was asking a question that wasn’t just pointless (the Speaker doesn’t adjudicate on the quality of interventions, more’s the pity), but that was also taking longer than one of Bercow’s famous soliloquies about himself.
This most pointless question of the session – indeed the year so far – came from new Tory MP Sarah Dines, who asked this:
‘My right hon. Friend will know that the quarries of the Peak district provide a huge proportion of the national building and mineral needs of this great nation. We would be delighted to see him in the Derbyshire Dales, so that he can see at first hand the men and women who work at the quarry face, who will be at the heart of the post-Brexit economy, and look at the need for my local Ashbourne bypass—this is necessary to deliver Brexit to the people. Does not this support for these hard-working people show who the real Conservatives are and that this party is the party of the working man?’
She was called to order by Hoyle, who complained that the session ‘is going to run on because of this’ and asked for short questions. But the lengthy waffle of a question served its purpose: it gave Johnson a breather and allowed him to raise the threats levelled at Tory MPs by the president of the Durham Miners’ Gala, who said earlier this week that any Conservatives wanting to attend his event might want to get police protection.
A similarly helpful question came from James Sunderland, also a newly-elected Tory, who told the Chamber that his Bracknell constituency ‘is the proud home of more than 150 internationally focused companies’ and asked the Prime Minister to ‘reassure the House that what is being done to develop new post-Brexit worldwide trade deals is for the benefit of everyone in Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst and, of course, right across the UK?’
This is one of those questions that requires only the easiest of answers. The Prime Minister is not going to say ‘no, my trade deals will screw over everyone outside the M25’, and neither is he being pressed on any detail of those trade deals. He merely need ‘reassure’ the House that he remains as committed to good things as the next person, and then move on.
He even got an easy question at the very start of the session from Bim Afolami, who has been an MP since 2017 and therefore has less of an excuse for asking duff questions. At least the other two might plead ignorance about how to ask something smart in the Chamber, which is an intimidating place. Afolami asked:
‘I welcome the announcement from the Government this week that tougher sentences, an end to early release and a complete review of the management of convicted terrorists are among a range of measures designed to strengthen this country’s response to terrorism—a promise made by this Prime Minister and a promise delivered. [Interruption.] Does he agree that we need to do everything we can, whatever it takes, to stop sickening terrorist attacks taking place?’
In summary, does the Prime Minister agree with me that he is keeping his promises and stopping bad things from happening? How staggering, then, that Johnson told the Commons that the Hitchin and Harpenden MP was ‘absolutely right’, before adding the newsworthy line that ‘this government will do all that we can to keep our people safe’. Well that’s solved that then.
As I’ve said before, MPs don’t need to turn themselves in the parliamentary equivalent of Jeremy Paxman in order to ask a decent question at this session. They don’t need to be hostile: many of the questions from Labour MPs today were constructive rather than full-throated attacks on Johnson. But merely asking if the Prime Minister agrees with them that the government is going to be doing good things in order to stop bad things – without actually asking for any detail at all – is a waste of a question.