It is clear that the Prime Minister is struggling in his the weekly encounter with the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions. As the Prime Minister, somewhat bizarrely, keeps reminding us Keir Starmer is a former barrister who is always well prepared and not unfamiliar with the adversarial system. The PM on the other hand is not a details man, but does seem to enjoy playing to a crowd. He would clearly be more comfortable in a full House of Commons chamber with ranks of Conservative MPs behind him willing to laugh like drains at his every quip. At times he seems like a lonely figure sitting in the middle of a largely vacant Treasury bench.
The social distancing arrangements in the House of Commons have left the Prime Minister isolated in more ways than one. Aside from depriving him of the comforting presence of his backbenchers, social distancing in the Commons chamber may well be depriving the PM of a more direct form of assistance at PMQs. As I have written previously, when answering questions in the Chamber, Prime Minsters are usually supported by one or possibly two Parliamentary Private Secretaries who sit on the bench behind them, armed with a folder of prepared briefing notes ready to pass to the Prime Minister in response to any question.
If social distancing has altered the theatre of PMQs, careful scrutiny of recent performances reveals a interesting change in the dramatis personae. Under the current arrangements there are usually only three people sitting on the Treasury bench for PMQs, and nobody in the row behind. As a result Parliamentary Private Secretaries can no longer sit behind the PM, pass notes over his shoulder or whisper in his ear. Moreover, the Treasury bench is reserved for Ministers and consequently the opportunity is not available for a PPS to sit alongside the PM.
Indeed for several weeks following the Prime Minister’s return to the chamber following his bout of Coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries were not visible in the chamber at all during PMQs. Although camera angles make it difficult to be certain about this, they were certainly not seated anywhere near the Prime Minister. This perhaps contributed to the Prime Minister’s faltering performances on his return to the Commons.
For several weeks the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, occupied the end of the front bench nearest to the Prime Minister. This was perhaps a means of signalling the Government’s priority in tackling the Coronavirus. The Health Secretary was also presumably in a position to pass details to the PM about the Government’s progress in combating the virus. Across the aisle, the front bench furthest away from the Speaker’s Chair was occupied by the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, and the Deputy Chief Whip, Stuart Andrew.
On 20 May, the Health Secretary was not in the chamber for PMQs and his position nearest to the Prime Minister was taken by the Chief Whip as it has been for subsequent PMQs. (This is mirrored on the other side of the chamber where the Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown has been a regular fixture on the end of the front bench nearest to Keir Starmer.) The Conservative Deputy Chief Whip moved up to occupy the seat across the aisle from the Chief Whip and the remaining position on the front bench was taken by one of the Prime Minister’s PPSs, Alex Burghart. In the course of PMQs, Burghart can clearly be seen leafing through the thick folder of briefing notes. In recent weeks Andrew and Burghart have swapped positions so that the PPS is sitting across the aisle from the Treasury bench and only a short distance from the PM.
In recent weeks both of the Prime Minister’s PPSs have been visible in the chamber at PMQs. Burghart in his, by now customary, position nursing the folder across the aisle from the Treasury bench. The Prime Minister’s other PPS, Trudy Harrison, can often be seen at the other end of the Conservative front bench standing in the wings just behind the Speaker’s Chair. She too is holding what is presumably a copy of the PMQs briefing notes.
What is not clear from the broadcast footage is what these PPSs are able to do to support the Prime Minister in the chamber or even how they are able to communicate with him. It may be that their presence alone provides some reassurance, but the hefty folder on Burghart’s knee suggests a more substantive role. The most important role of the PM’s PPS is almost certainly in preparing the Prime Minister for PMQs, but the re-emergence of these important actors onto the stage suggests that they also have an important supporting role in shoring up the Prime Minister’s performance in the chamber.