The Pantomime of Parliament

Joseph Caddick discusses the changes in communication and debate among politicians amid the pandemic.

Joseph Caddick
17th May 2020
Social distancing is a necessity right now, and lockdown has become one time there’s unity between the behaviour of politicians and the people they represent. With everything that’s going on currently, the way people are communicating has changed. While for most of us this is hopefully a short-term change, there’s one area that could really benefit from keeping some temporary measures more permanently: Parliament.

I don’t watch Prime Minister’s Questions very often (it’s usually reserved for when I’m bored senseless and there’s nothing else on), but the thing that stood out to me the most was the heckling and jeering. Kids in school are more mature and respectful than the people supposed to be running the country. Booing over valid points made by other parties while laughing at the painful, painful ‘jokes’ your own side makes it just pathetic partisan pantomime. It’s an off-putting extension of public school culture that most MPs grew up with and shows how disconnected they are to normal people.

Given that all 650 MPs meeting in the House of Commons isn’t possible right now (and won’t be for quite some time), it’s clear that key political debates have had to change too. In this case though, it’s had some surprising benefits, if only because the shouting has had to stop. After all, in the eerily empty House of Commons, two or three people cheering like they’re at a football match would be a bit sad.

Without the heckling, Prime Minister’s Questions is a completely different spectacle. Gone are the interruptions and childish insults, replaced with hard-hitting questions and no room for hiding or bluffing. And as we all know from the story about him retreating into a fridge to avoid scrutiny, the Prime Minister loves to hide from anything vaguely resembling accountability.

As Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, is a very experienced lawyer, this new format works perfectly in his favour. Now he’s able to lay traps and make the Prime Minister speak outside of his sea of soundbites and slogans. The case of the advice given about care homes in March is a prime example; Mr Johnson ended up saying it “wasn’t true” that the government’s advice was that it was “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected”. The latter quote is from a link from a government advice page that Labour gave a link to. Mr Johnson’s fib was exposed for all to see. And if he’s lying about issues as serious and devastating as the spread of coronavirus in care homes, who’s to say it stops there?

Comparing ourselves to other countries is now “too early” according to Mr Johnson, yet until our death toll sadly became the highest in Europe, the daily briefings had PowerPoint slides directly comparing our death toll to those of other countries. It’s contradictory at the best of times, but right now it’s insensitive and tasteless. Pandemics aren’t political games; we need to work together and be open and honest if there’s any chance of this going away.

And that’s the thing. Teamwork is impossible in the House of Commons at the best of times. Compared to other parliaments, the House of Commons very much has an “us vs them” feel to it with the government and opposition on opposite sides of the room. The red lines on the floor are two swords lengths apart so the opposing sides can’t strike each other. Hostility had to be considered when designing our parliament, and that says it all. As subtle as these things might seem, they play into the pantomime of Parliament and directly encourage the point-scoring we’ve seen in so many debates before. Right now, that’s the last thing we need.

Personally, I feel like governments work best when they are held to account. A name-calling match where each side is accompanied by a band of rowdy cheerleaders doesn’t allow the level of scrutiny that we’re seeing right now. Amidst a pandemic it is necessary for every possible decision that’s led to even just one extra death to be seriously questioned and rationalised. Thankfully, this is able to happen right now. Should Parliament return to Westminster, this is much less likely. And that needs to change.

Featured image: Mike Gimelfarb

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