Thursday, April 07, 2005

Minding their PMQs

Today was the last Prime Minister's Question Time before Parliament is dissolved, and it was widely seen as free publicity at the start of the election campaign. The consensus after the event seemed to be that both parties were setting out election agendas that almost didn't touch each other - Blair focusing on the economy, Howard concentrating on trust and management. Apart from the fact this is a pretty big indictment on Blair (after all, he is supposed to answer the questions put to him), the analysis is largely true. I think, however, Howard probably came out on top today.

Yes, it was childish at times, and was far more pantomime than debate. It is sad that it is what we have come to expect from the debating chamber of the Commons. Howard's chanting of "Up! Up! Up!" and "Down! Down! Down!" was for the circumstances quite astute. He kept to the time-honoured tactic of using the final PMQs of a session to discuss a range of issues, and the chanting at the end was a damning critique of Labour's record in government whilst also stealing Blair's thunder. It is his favourite tactic to roll off a list of Labour policies - to have done that today would have seemed to be aping Howard and instead he was forced to resort to ridiculous scaremongering that I doubt would be taken seriously.

On the other hand, Blair's ability to answer the question today was appalling, and if the Speaker had any guts then he would have taken action. When Blair responded to a question about top-up fees by waffling on about economic stability, he may as well have been talking about the Manchester United football team for all the relevance it had. The contempt for Parliament was intensified by the sycophantic line of questioning from the Labour Party backbenchers. It amazes me that Helen Jackson, a retiring backbencher, would want her final statement as an MP to have been so dreadful.

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that, Question Time apart, it is the closest thing that we will get to proper debate throughout the whole election. Instead we will get the lies, misinformation and posturing that purport to be manifestos from the major parties. I hope my cynicism is proved wrong. But if the evidence in today's PMQs is anything to go by, we are a long way off from re-engaging the disillusioned with politics.