Has he a plan to avoid the weekly grillings?
One of Tony Blair’s first moves when he came to power in 1997 was to change Prime Minister’s Questions. For decades the PM had had to face the House twice a week – Blair changed it to once but doubled the time available. He was new in the job, there’d been a landslide and change was in the air. The plan was met with little resistance.
Is it fanciful to think then that Gordon Brown might be planning a similar dramatic development if he does, as expected succeed to the top job?
Certainly, like ending the Treasury’s role in setting interest rates within days of becoming Chancellor in 1997, Brown will seek to stamp his mark on the job straight away. And what better way to do this than changing PMQs to a format that would suit his style better?
For one of his great political achievements has been to avoid ever being put on the spot with tricky issues such as the fraud fiascoes arising from his Individual Learning Accounts and family tax credit initiatives. When things have started to unravel Brown has left it to colleagues to face the music – smart stuff for a man with ambition. Could that be how he’ll deal with PMQs?
Another reason why he might want change is that inevitably his PMQ performances will be compared with Tony Blair who has, in the main, got this off to a fine art.
For even after nine years in office it’s hard to know how Brown would fare in such a forum because there have been so few occasions when he has had to face a public grilling over issues for which he has not been notified about in advance. He’s surely not going to let the minor matter of a small promotion stand in the way of what has been a brilliantly successful strategy.
These thoughts were sparked off by re-reading Tom Bower’s excellent biography on Brown while on holiday last week. There is so much that Bower documents which the Tories could use to cause trouble for Brown at PMQs that I just cannot see him allowing his first few months at Number 10 being bogged down facing tough questions about things he managed to side-step while at Number 11. Brown’s too clever for that.
Of course he could not just abolish PMQs completely – much as he might like to.
He would have to offer an alternative which would, of course, be spun as increasing the Prime Minister’s accountability. Maybe he could create a team approach, like happens at Treasury questions, where he could appear with leading cabinet colleagues who would be delegated to deal with the tricky issues.
Whatever he would have to try to secure some consensus. A few crumbs could be offered to his Fife constituency neighbour, Ming Campbell, and there would be a great degree of rhetoric about ending “Punch and Judy” politics. Another fellow Scottish MP, the Speaker, Michael Martin, would have a role to play.
Is this going to happen? I don’t know but I just can’t see Gordon standing at the dispatch box for half an hour every Wednesday as Tony Blair has done for nine years. And I cannot believe that the thought of changing the format has not crossed Gordon’s mind in that time.
On the Labour leadership betting markets Brown is now out to 0.43/1 compared with 0.38/1 just a month ago. The suggestion that David Miliband is standing by to become Deputy Prime Minister has caused his leadership price to tighten and on Betfair this stands at 11.5/1.