Goodness knows what we can expect from Prime Minister’s Questions this week but last week, in the first of the year, the PM displayed a disturbing pattern by showing contempt for proceedings and a reckless disregard for accuracy when answering questions.
First he denied ever saying inflation fears were unfounded. Almost immediately a recording emerged of him saying exactly that. He then claimed several times that the Warm Homes Discount is worth £140 per week. It’s worth £140 per year.
Finally, he claimed that it’s Labour policy to rejoin the EU. It isn’t.
Questions to the Prime Minister is a British tradition dating back to the 1880s and the premiership of Gladstone. It’s a bedrock of our system which highlights that our PM is first among equals and open to regular scrutiny from his peers.
In theory he doesn’t know the questions in advance but in reality government Whips have a good idea of what is coming from their side and make reasonable guesses about the opposition, hence that bulky folder he carries.
Previous PMs have often used the occasion to show mastery over the Commons although quite a few, including Harold Wilson who often needed a stiff brandy beforehand, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, have all admitted to finding it terrifying.
Parliamentary etiquette doesn’t permit MPs to call each other liars although the ministerial code states it is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful answers and seek to correct the record in event of an error. Right now there doesn’t seem to be a remedy if ministers fail to comply.
There’s an increasing clamour to restore some gravitas. It’s simply not good enough for the PM to say the first thing that comes into his head. One interesting idea is to invite him to take the oath at the start, as happens before giving evidence in court.
This would impress on all concerned the need for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
We need some kind of intervention, if we’re to prevent one of our most venerable traditions from falling into total disrepute.