Prime Minister’s Questions might be shorter now that Lindsay Hoyle is the Speaker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality of the session is any better. There are still MPs who don’t really see it as an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister a question, preferring instead to compliment him. Today’s worst offender was Michael Tomlinson, the Conservative MP for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, who asked this:
‘For social justice, for life chances, for opportunities for the next generation, education is the key, and that is why the Prime Minister’s pledge for additional funding is so welcome, especially for historically underfunded areas such as Dorset and Poole; but equally important are discipline and standards. Will the Prime Minister ensure that there is a continued focus on the most disadvantaged, especially when it comes to vital literacy and numeracy skills?’
Johnson is hardly going to reply by saying ‘no’, and indeed his answer was largely him trumpeting the plans of his government, telling the Chamber that ‘we need to do more, and as my hon. Friend says, that is why we are investing more now – record sums – in education’.
Well done to Tomlinson for giving the Prime Minister a breathing space during what was hardly a challenging session, but is asking the government to confirm that it is still interested in disadvantaged children really the best use of a chance to question the Prime Minister?
Similarly, Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, asked this:
‘I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s continued commitment to invest and level up across our country. This will be particularly welcome in Cornwall, which continues to be one of the poorest parts of the UK. Will the Prime Minister confirm to the people of Cornwall that we will continue to be at the heart of his Government’s plans to invest in the regions of the country?’
Congratulations to Double for managing to get the Tories’ current slogan of ‘level up’ into his question too. Once again, Johnson was hardly going to say that no, he wasn’t a massive fan of the West Country as it happened. At least in this instance Double was trying to get on record from the PM that Cornwall will be receiving more money in the coming years, something he can hold Johnson to if needs be, presumably through a slightly more challenging question.
There is no need to ask these kinds of questions, even if you are a shiny new backbencher who is keen to get on (Tomlinson and Double were both elected in 2015 so aren’t as shiny as some). Dehenna Davison, for instance, who has been an MP for a matter of days, asked a question about a local hospital service closure, which wasn’t hostile but neither was it dripping with sycophancy. You don’t need to lay into the Prime Minister in order to show your constituents that you’re standing up for them, and neither do you need to ask your party leader to confirm that they are great in order to show you’re a loyal Tory.
Of course, back in the olden days when we had Labour governments there were plenty of MPs in that party keen to ask pointless questions, too, but memories of those moments are understandably receding. In fact, as the Labour party’s presence in parliament shrinks, so the importance of Tory backbenchers doing their job increases. It is surely more loyal to make sure that your party is doing a good job and isn’t about to mess up, if nothing else so that it doesn’t take a hammering at the next election.
Beyond that, of course, it’s worth remembering that MPs are members of the legislature, though of course many of them aspire to join the executive. It is their job to make sure that the government is doing what it says it will, not to use Commons time as a job application. From now on, each week Coffee House will record the most pointless PMQs as a way of reminding MPs of just that.
UPDATE: Double has got in touch to say he was in fact trying to make things a bit awkward for the Prime Minister, as he feared there was too much focus on the North and not enough on Cornwall:
Unfortunately Isabel (of who I'm usually a big fan) has got this one wrong. Lots of concern in #Cornwall that all government focus is on the North and I was pleased to get a clear commitment from the PM for Cornwall. Very happy I got to speak up for my constituency and Cornwall. https://t.co/xd3U5jzZtx
— Steve Double MP (@stevedouble) January 9, 2020