Ed Balls and a defence of sledging at PMQs

ballsPrime Minister’s Questions is one of the most extraordinary Parliamentary spectacles at Westminster, if not the world. Every week, while Parliament is sitting, the Prime Minister must come to Parliament and subject themselves to thirty minutes, (in recent times quite a lot longer), of questions from both sides of the House of Commons. They receive no advance warning of the subject matter of questions, which can range widely across any area of public policy and beyond. In a recent PMQs, the range of topics on which Theresa May was expected to field questions included NHS spending, the child sex-abuse inquiry, grammar schools, the prospect of a second runway for Gatwick airport, the ivory trade, Chinese ceramic dumping and the dualling of the A303 in Yeovil. While the leader of the Opposition is allowed to ask six questions and the leader of the next largest party, currently the SNP, can ask two, the remaining questions are selected at random from MPs who put their name into the weekly ‘shuffle’ or by a small handful who may be selected by catching the Speaker’s attention in the Chamber. While Opposition questions can be anticipated as designed to challenge or embarrass the government, those from the Prime Minister’s own benches are often designed or ‘planted’ in order to allow the Prime Minister to draw attention to the government’s perceived achievements. While such questions may provide a temporary relief from the onslaught from the other side of the Chamber, the occasional unexpected challenge from one’s own backbenches is not uncommon and may be even more painful.

The process of a weekly questions to the Prime Minister is an important mechanism for holding the government to account. It ensures that the government cannot ignore Parliament and serves as a regular reminder that, in the UK, it is Parliament that is sovereign. Even Prime Ministers who enjoy a large majority in Parliament freely admit to being daunted by PMQs. The description of the challenges of this weekly engagement in Tony Blair’s memoirs provides one of the strongest defence of the value of PMQs:

PMQs was the most nerve-wracking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question… the whole thing is a giant joust, a sort of modern, non-physical duel. The weapons are words, but my God they can hurt, and to devastating effect. For those thirty minutes, the Prime Minister is essentially on the ‘at risk’ register. It is the unpredictability that is so frightening. Sure your own back benches, if they are loyal, let you know the question, but to everyone else, it’s a blood sport and the Prime Minister is the quarry. If it goes well, you feel buoyed; if it goes badly, you feel not simply wretched but humiliated. (Tony Blair, A Journey, p.109)

However, while PMQs is widely viewed as an important democratic process, in practice the spectacle is often decidedly unedifying. MPs on both sides of the House take the opportunity to barrack and bawl at each other and score cheap points with carefully constructed, and only occasionally funny, jokes which will, nonetheless, prompt lengthy and unconstrained laughter in the Chamber. Questions, particularly those from the Opposition leaders, are often prefaced by long statements and in some cases are not even questions at all. The practice of planting sympathetic questions on the government’s own benches undermines the value of this genuine opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny and can lend the whole event the unpleasant pallor of toadying obsequiousness. Moreover, while the Chamber is always packed for PMQs, many MPs are acutely aware of the limitations of exercise and the poor image it presents to the world beyond Westminster. In interviews conducted as part of our research on Parliament and welfare policy, many MPs were critical of the value of PMQs describing it variously as ‘stage-managed’ and ‘a circus’. In contrast, some noted the daily departmental questions, which receives much less media attention, was an important opportunity for detailed scrutiny.

One of the most vocal critics of PMQs is the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Clearly frustrated at the spectacle he is forced to manage, Bercow has described PMQs it as ‘scrutiny by screech’ which is, he argues, damaging the reputation of Parliament.

For most of the public Prime Minister’s Questions is the shop window of the House of Commons. The media coverage of that thirty minute slot dominates all other proceedings in Parliament during the rest of the week. If the country comes to an adverse conclusion about the House because of what it witnesses in those exchanges, then the noble work of a dozen Select Committees will pale into insignificance by comparison… If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screetch which is a very strange concept to my mind… PMQs ha[s] become a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum. It was emphatically not an act of scrutiny conducted in a civilised manner. And this is what the House of Commons has allowed to be placed in what I repeat is the shop window. (John Bercow, speech at the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies, London, 2010)

Many MPs are prepared to accept such criticisms and will pay lip-service to the need for a quieter or more mature approach to PMQs. In contrast, there are few who are prepared to defend the current practices. One notable exception to this is the former Shadow Chancellor, and extraordinary dancer, Ed Balls, who was, until recently, one of the most active practitioners of the dark arts of PMQs. While his recently published memoirs, Speaking Out, don’t necessarily provide a wholehearted defence of the less edifying side of PMQs they do explain the reasoning behind his own actions in the Chamber, when sitting opposite David Cameron at PMQs. He clearly derived satisfaction from his ability to provoke the Prime Minister and also stresses why, in his view, such actions may be necessary:

On television, you never get a sense of how small the House of Commons actually is, how close the opposing benches are to each other, and what a cauldron of noise is created. The microphones pick up only a fraction of what is going on, as do the journalists up in the press gallery. It was perfectly possible, and common, for George Osborne and me to have a whispered chat throughout PMQs exchanges. I’d observe how little David Cameron understood the issues; George would ask in response why then were we unable to lay a glove on him?

Of course, Cameron would also hear what I was saying and would become more and more irate, especially when I had the temerity to address him directly, and ask repeatedly – in the manner of a disappointed schoolmaster – why he didn’t just work harder at his job…

Naturally a small part of me wished I could be in Ed’s shoes, and pose the questions myself… But while I couldn’t ask Cameron questions, I could certainly use my low-level heckling and visible body language at PMQs to put him under pressure: using my outstretched hand to signal that the economy was flatlining, for example – a gesture akin to smoothing a bedsheet.

If you believe you’re born to be prime minister you probably don’t think that anyone else has a right to question the way you do the job, let alone treat you with disrespect… Among the media, his own ministers and MPs, and behind closed doors of Downing Street, Cameron’s temper was even more notorious than Gordon Brown’s. But that was a side if his character that the public rarely got to see, and PMQs became one of the only occasions we could expose it.

I’m absolutely certain he never came into a session on Wednesday intending to say something nasty or patronising… but eventually his inner Flashman would win out… So when Cameron finally lost it, it’s true that it always gave me some temporary satisfaction. (Ed Balls, Speaking Out, pp.345-6)

While Balls was clearly motivated by a desire to expose the Prime Minister he also admits that the actions of Opposition MPs at PMQs may also depend on their own leader’s performance, concluding that:

On days when Ed scored a good hit, I was quieter, but on the days when he didn’t, I’d try to catch Cameron out. If there’s a comparison with close fielders sledging in cricket, it’s that you don’t bother when your spinner is turning them sideways, but you have to try everything when it’s 200-0 on a flat pitch.

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Cameron’s gone. What will he do and what is his legacy?

CamA slightly shorter version of this article was published in The Lincolnshire Echo.


In a period of political upheaval David Cameron’s announcement that he is leaving the House of Commons with ‘immediate effect’ is not the most surprising news of recent months. It would, perhaps, have been more surprising if he had chosen to remain as an MP.

What do retiring Prime Ministers do?

It is now rare for departing Prime Ministers to remain in Parliament. Gordon Brown, who remained as an MP for the whole of the 2010-2015 Parliament is something of an exception in recent years. But Brown, who was a prominent campaigner for the Union in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, rarely spoke in Parliament and chose not to contest his seat at the 2015 general election. The last defeated Prime Minister who stayed in Parliament long enough to fight a general election from the backbenches was James Callaghan who remained as an MP for two parliamentary terms following his defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, stepping down just before the 1987 general election.

By the time he left the Commons, Callaghan was the Father of the House, the title reserved for the longest serving MP. He was followed in this position by one of his predecessors as Prime Minister, Edward Heath who also chose to remain in the Commons after a defeat by Margaret Thatcher, in Heath’s case for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Heath only stood down as an MP in 2001, twenty-seven years after he ceased to be Prime Minister.

It is the example of Edward Heath which has perhaps provided the starkest lesson to outgoing Prime Ministers about how unrewarding life can be on the backbenches. Thatcher claimed that she offered Heath a position in her first government, although Heath’s recollection was somewhat different, and when he declined the two barely spoke again. Heath was, however, a persistent and sometimes vocal critic of Thatcher’s leadership from the backbenches earning him the unwelcome sobriquet of the ‘incredible sulk’.

It is also the case that few outgoing Prime Ministers now choose to take a seat in the House of Lords, at one time a well-trodden path for Britain’s former Prime Ministers. Of Britain’s post-war Prime Ministers Attlee, Eden, Macmillan, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher all ended their days in the House of Lords, although some, most notably Churchill, declined the offer. However, Thatcher was the last former Prime Minister to take a seat in the upper House, and since her death in 2013 there are now no former Prime Ministers in the House of Lords, although a substantial number of peerages have gone to former Ministers from the governments of Major, Blair and even Cameron.

Why has Cameron stepped down?

Cameron’s age may offer one explanation for his reluctance to remain in Parliament. David Cameron is leaving Parliament at the age of 49, that is one year younger than the average age of MPs elected to Parliament in 2015, and five years younger than Tony Blair when he left office in 2007. David Cameron was the youngest Prime Minister of recent times. He is also leaving office at a younger age than most of his predecessors began the job. Churchill, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Brown and of course Theresa May were all older than Cameron is now when they first became Prime Minister.

Cameron almost certainly has plans for a career beyond Westminster. He has considerable personal wealth but is unlikely to follow John Major’s example and sit back and watch the cricket. In reality, former Prime Ministers, including Major and most controversially Tony Blair, have developed lucrative business interests and can demand significant fees on the after-dinner speakers circuit. Although he has said that he would like to remain in public service it is likely that Cameron will be presented with many attractive opportunities in the private sector. While the manner of his departure and his reputation for bold, if not entirely successful, risk-taking may worry some, there are many, particularly in the City of London for whom this may be seen as an asset. Ironically while many voters may criticise Cameron for turning his back on a problem he helped to create, there are no doubt some in the financial sector who will pay handsomely for his advice on how to handle Brexit.

Cameron’s legacy

There has already been a great deal of discussion about Cameron’s legacy since he stepped down as Prime Minister in July. However, it is hard to see him being remembered for anything other than being the Prime Minister who prompted Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Whether that is viewed as a toxic legacy or something more positive is, of course, out of his hands. It is dependent on the deal negotiated by Theresa May or quite possibly her successor, and the impact this will have on the UK. Either way it is somewhat ironic that Cameron will largely be remembered for delivering something he didn’t want and has no control over.

One other area in which Cameron deserves some credit is in making the Conservative Party electable once more. The Conservative Party went through three leaders (Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard) and lost three successive general elections prior to David Cameron’s election as party leader in 2005. Although Cameron was only marginally more electorally successful than his predecessors, failing to win a majority in 2010, he did at least lead the Conservatives back into government, albeit in coalition, after thirteen years of opposition. More extraordinarily, and easily forgotten in light of what has happened since, Cameron managed to secure a Conservative majority in 2015. However, as the last few months have shown, all of that is likely to eclipsed by the impact that Brexit has on a party and a country which he no longer leads.

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Not too late for an informed debate on EU membership

This article first appeared in ‘The Business’ supplement to The Lincolnshire Echo, June 2016.

IMG_0950The European Union has changed beyond all recognition from the economic community Britain joined in 1973. It is now an economic and political union with a common foreign and security policy, its own parliament, a common currency and open borders which extend across large parts of its twenty-eight member states. For those campaigning for Britain to leave, and even amongst some of those who would like to remain, there is a feeling that the so-called ‘European project’ has moved forward at a dizzying pace, driven by forces over which we have little control.

On the other hand the EU is very much the product of the community which Britain was eager to join in the 1970s. The shape of the community which Britain joined was set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which promised to ‘lay the foundations for an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.’ For forty years successive British governments have signed treaties which have expanded the remit of the EU. At the same time, far from being bounced into ever closer union, Britain has a consistently negotiated opt-outs from those aspects which it does not support. Margaret Thatcher successfully negotiated a rebate on Britain’s contributions and opted out of the workers’ rights included in the Maastricht Treaty. Britain is not a member of the Eurozone or part of the Schengen area which has removed border controls, while David Cameron has, amongst other things, negotiated Britain’s exclusion from the founding principle of ‘ever closer union’.

Of course the debate about Britain’s membership of the EU is not simply an argument about the past. As economic uncertainty has spread across the continent, some argue that EU membership is an unnecessary drain on Britain’s resources. The inconvenient truth for the ‘remain’ campaign is that Britain is a net contributor to the EU. While British membership does not cost anywhere near the £350m a week which has been claimed, Britain does pay more into the EU than it gets out.

However, this has not always been the case. Britain was the poor man of Europe when it joined the European community. As a booming economy it now contributes towards the development of other states. While some will argue that there are real benefits to promoting economic prosperity across Europe, creating stability and markets for British goods, those opposed to the redistribution of wealth at home are unlikely to support it abroad. It is also important to remember that in some areas, Britain still benefits considerably from EU funding. In agriculture and research and development, for example, EU funding to the UK exceeds the EU average.

Less easy to calculate than the cost of membership are the economic benefits of being part of the largest trading bloc in the world. The EU is Britain’s most significant trading partner. The ‘leave’ campaign argue that as the fourth largest economy in the world, Britain is more than capable of standing on its own two feet. However, they are unclear about where Britain’s economic future lies. Exit would certainly mean considerable economic uncertainty. Britain would be forced to negotiate a trade deal with the EU which may take considerable time and in doing so would still be required to retain many EU regulations in order to maintain trade relations.

Polls indicate that the majority of the public, including those who think Britain should leave, accept there will be an economic cost to exit. Whether this is a price worth paying may depend on how one feels about other aspects of the EU. At the centre of this debate is an argument about sovereignty or control.

It is often claimed that membership of the EU means that Britain has lost control of its borders. Although this is not the case, the free movement of labour has seen an influx of foreign workers into the UK. Businesses, including Lincolnshire farmers, have benefited considerably from this, but immigration has also created tensions in communities where some feel it has placed pressure on local services.

There is also a widespread view that the EU is run by unelected bureaucrats who make decisions which are somehow imposed on the member states. The reality, of course, is more complex. The EU is an institution comprised of a large number of independent states and membership inevitably involves comprise. Decisions in Brussels are taken by Commissioners appointed by the member states or by the Council of Ministers which includes British Cabinet Ministers, and then approved by the European Parliament, which we elected. The system is by no means perfect, democracy rarely is, but nine times out of ten Britain gets what it wants.

Sadly much of the debate has focused on general perceptions of what membership involves rather than how and why the EU exists and the real benefits and the undoubted costs of membership. It is not too late for an informed debate.

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Have Police and Crime Commissioners been value for money?

This post first appeared on The New Statesman’s staggers blog, and also in The Lincolnshire Echo.

Next month voters in England and Wales will go to the polls to elect Police and Crime Commissioners. The first PCC elections which took place in November 2012 are notable for attracting the lowest national turnout in British electoral history with only around 15% of voters going to the polls. As a result the previous PCC elections represented extraordinarily poor value for money. The 2012 PCC election cost around £75m to run yet only around 5 million people turned out to vote. This represents a spend of around £15 for every vote cast, in terms of spend per vote the election of PCCs in 2012 was more costly than the re-election of US President Barack Obama which took place earlier the same month.

Police and Crime Commissioners are powerful individuals with extensive powers to set policing priorities, allocate resources and appoint Chief Constables. However, the low turnout meant that most were elected with the support of less than 7% of eligible voters, which naturally raised concerns about the legitimacy of those wielding these powers.

Eyebrows were also raised by the large salary and allowance packages available to PCCs. The £65k a year PCC salary is markedly higher than the £10k basic annual allowance for the police authority members they replaced. Although when one considers that most police authorities comprised around fifteen members and that many of those were eligible for additional allowances on top of their basic salary the generous salary of one individual does look like better value. However, many Police and Crime Commissioners have also appointed deputy commissioners and managerial teams also on generous salaries. The replacement of a number of modestly paid police authority members with a single highly paid individual and a team of well-paid advisors begins to look like less good value for money.

Moreover, while all PCCs were directly elected, albeit on a low turnout, their deputies and managerial teams were all appointed and as such are somewhat less accountable to the public than the local councillors who sat on the police authorities they replaced.

One reason why so many of the new PCCs appointed advisory and support teams was that many of them had little experience of policing prior to taking on the role. While most PCCs are without doubt well-meaning public spirited individuals who want to make a difference to policing in their local area, a strong public service ethic or even extensive experience in other fields does not necessarily qualify one to set priorities for public safety and security or to handle million pound budgets. Of course the police authorities they replaced were not comprised of law-enforcement professionals but they did include local councillors often with many years’ experience of handling local authority budgets and all included lay members who were magistrates and therefore had some experience of the law.

In most cases the main qualification for election as a PCC appears to be political affiliation. Only a quarter of PCCs elected in 2012 were independent and the majority of candidates for this year’s election are standing as representatives of a political party. However, unlike for example MPs or local councillors, PCCs are required to carry out their job with impartiality. It is somewhat odd therefore that voters are being encouraged to vote for candidates on the basis of their political affiliation rather than their capacity to do the job. In the case of Police and Crime Commissioners one might argue that political affiliation should be a disqualification rather than a qualification for the post.

The most significant power allocated to PCCs, which had not been exercised by police authorities, is the power to appoint Chief Constables. Once again the record here has been mixed. Several PCCs have had fractious relationships with their Chief Constables and there have been a number of well-publicised fallouts between the individuals holding these prominent positions. The impact of such breakdowns on morale in the wider police force is also a cause for concern. A recent parliamentary select committee inquiry found that, as a result of the introduction of PCCs, police forces were finding it increasingly difficult to find candidates willing to take on the post of Chief Constable.

Whatever the flaws, the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners has drawn attention to a role which in the past was largely exercised without considerable public oversight or debate. While most PCCs are not perhaps household names, they have provided a focus for media and therefore public attention. Moreover, the high profile coverage of some of the problems associated with the role is perhaps an indication of an increase in accountability, and may therefore be seen as a good thing. The fact that PCC elections are this year being run alongside local elections will inevitably mean an increase in turnout. It is to be hoped that the next batch of Police and Crime Commissioners repay the voters confidence.


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EU referendum myths: prisoners’ voting rights and EU membership

IMG_0284The most frustrating, but perhaps inevitable, feature of the EU referendum campaign is the wealth of ill-informed comment, and straightforward untruths, being disseminated by those campaigning. In some cases it is possible to argue that differences of opinion might lead to understandably different perspectives on the same issue. However, in other cases it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there has been a deliberate attempt to mislead.

A case in point is the leaflet above which presents ‘5 positive reasons to Vote Leave and take back control’. Reason number 2 which is ‘to take back control of our laws’ includes the following carefully worded statement:

If we vote to remain, EU laws will overrule UK laws and the European Courts will be in control of our trade, our borders, and big decisions like whether prisoners are allowed to vote.

The obvious red herring here, which those campaigning to leave the EU well know, is that Britain’s membership of the EU has anything to do with prisoners’ voting rights. The leaflet is careful to state that this is something which is of concern to ‘European Courts’, however, what it fails to mention is that the court which ruled that UK prisoners’ rights had been breached by denying them a vote is the European Court of Human Rights, which is not a court of the  European Union, and that withdrawal from the EU would not remove Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The European Court of Human Rights is an international court which was established in 1959 to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights. The 47 states which recognise the jurisdiction of the Court form the Council of Europe. These include all member states of the European Union, but also nineteen states which are not members of the EU including Russia, Switzerland and Turkey. Britain was a founding member of the Council of Europe, some fourteen years before it joined the European Community in 1973. It is perfectly possible, therefore, to be party to the ECHR without being a member of the EU.

It could, of course, be argued that leaving the EU would be a necessary precursor to withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. However, this does not seem to be the case. While the European Convention provides the EU with a standard for the protection of human rights, which is an expectation for member states, there is no formal link between the ECHR and EU membership. Moreover, while there is now an expectation that states wishing to join the EU will sign up to the ECHR, the status of existing member states is somewhat different. As Steve Peers points out in his excellent post on this issue, historically there has been no requirement that existing member states sign up to the ECHR, France, for example, was not a party to the convention until the 1970s.

Of course all EU member states, including Britain, are now party to the convention and the central question is, therefore, whether Britain could withdraw from the ECHR and remain a member of the EU. This has been the subject of a number of authoritative studies including this House of Commons library note. In short there is no formal requirement that withdrawal from the ECHR would trigger withdrawal, or ejection, from the EU, and such a course of action seems unlikely in the extreme. EU member states do have to guarantee certain fundamental rights and values, which are embodied in the ECHR, which means it is not possible to jettison altogether respect for human rights. However, if Britain were, for example, to claim that these values were also embodied in a different framework, such as a British Bill of Rights, then there is no reason why its EU membership would be threatened by withdrawal from the ECHR.

Once interesting consequence of all of this is that while Britain could withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and remain a member of the EU, if Britain were to leave the EU and the ECHR, and then decided to reapply for EU membership, it would in all likelihood need to sign up to the convention before gaining readmission to the EU. At present Britain has the option of being a member of the EU and not a member of the Council of Europe, but that option only exists as long as Britain remains a member of the EU.

All of which is a roundabout way of making a number of simple points:

  • The judgement on British prisoners’ voting rights did not emerge from an EU court.
  • Withdrawal from the EU will not alter Britain’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Withdrawal from the EU is not necessary in order for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
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