PMQs – or Questions to the Prime Minister to give them their proper name – has become a piece of political theatre over the years. But when it was first introduced, in 1961, it was an important innovation. For the first time, it became the duty of the Prime Minister of the day to come and answer questions from members of the House of Commons on a specific day and time. At first, it was held twice a week for 15 minutes a session but has now settled to half an hour at noon on Wednesdays when the House is sitting.
The concept of the PM being answerable to Parliament is an important one. Under our constitutional arrangements, the Government is not sovereign. Power rests with a concept called ‘the Crown in Parliament’. As a consequence of the Bill of Rights 1688 Parliament – the Commons and the Lords acting together – is where power theoretically resides. But over the years the powers of the House of Lords have been removed and taken by the Commons, and the powers of the Commons have been taken by the government of the day and the party whipping system. The PM sits atop the Parliamentary pyramid and can do pretty much what he likes as long as he has a working majority. For further information, you can read The Elective Dictatorship in the Opinions section of the Reboot website.
PMQs – indeed much of the Parliamentary process – has been little more than theatre for some years but has hit rock bottom under the present Government. A weak Speaker has allowed the PM to completely avoid answering the questions put to him unless they are what former Speaker Baroness Betty Boothroyd has called ‘fluff’: non-questions put by obsequious backbenchers of his own party inviting him to congratulate someone for something or other that makes the government look good. She has also said the PM is demonstrating contempt with his non-answers.
The Speaker has complained to No 10 about the PM’s non-answers but they continue. There are few rules governing the conduct of Questions to Ministers beyond procedural ones but the Speaker does have the ultimate sanction of having the PM removed from the Commons. This is the sanction applied by our Alternative Madam Speaker, a Reboot homage to Betty Boothroyd.
Order! Order! Orrrderrr!
The Prime Minister has not answered the Honourable Member’s question.
May I remind him that this session of Parliament is called Prime Minister’s Questions, the purpose of which is to provide a necessary degree of democratic accountability in respect of the Government’s activities.
This is not just for the benefit of the Members present but also for the public.
Members are therefore entitled to proper answers.
The rules do state that the Prime Minister may formulate his responses to these questions in any way he wishes, but in so doing what he cannot do is fail to address the substance of the question. If he cannot answer then he must say so. Equally, he may indicate that the answer is too complex or time-consuming to give immediately, in which case he will undertake to give a written answer to the Member, which will then be recorded in the proceedings of this House.
What he is not entitled to do is use these questions as an opportunity to evade scrutiny, indulge in politically motivated attacks or simply to change the subject to something that suits him or his party agenda better.
The Prime Minister has failed to answer the substance of the question he has just been asked, so I will invite the Honourable Member to ask their question again and I – and this House – expect him to respond to it in an appropriate manner.
If his response does not address the substantive issue raised then I will consider him in contempt of this House, and he will be removed until such time as he is prepared to honour and respect the House’s constitutional right to scrutinise.
I now invite the Honourable Member for Batley and Spen to ask their question for the second time…
Bring Britain Back – A Patriotic Foreign Policy for Our Era
When you’re Foreign Secretary, there’s no time to sun yourself. Even with your mobile phone on. As the outgoing holder of this centuries-old office has discovered to his cost. The job’s often described as being ‘the country’s chief diplomat’. Which is true. But I’d put it differently.
It’s about patriotism. Upholding and promoting the United Kingdom’s security and prosperity, and the well-being of its population. Through all the means at our disposal on the international stage. A good Foreign Secretary combines being the country’s chief realist with being its chief idealist. Standing up for what’s right. Within the limits of what’s possible. Doing what’s necessary for the country. The world faces its most dangerous period since 1914. Arguably ever. In a nuclear-armed era, with an existential environmental crisis and health emergencies confronting us, we cannot afford increasingly destabilised, chaotic international conditions. But that’s precisely what we’re seeing.
President Xi’s Chinese Communist Party actively seeks systemic competition with the USA and its allies. He’s content to behave in ways reminiscent of the darkest decades of European history – and to cloak his actions in a torrent of propaganda. Russia, under President Putin, another shameless propagandist, attempts to disrupt. He pursues revanchist, brutal expansion in Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia, using Russia’s oil and gas resources and vast nuclear arsenal as blackmail. In the pure image of the Soviet KGB he deploys covert, state-backed and state-executed terrorism, and so-called hybrid war.Both have a vital interest in protecting the personal safety and huge wealth of their domestic political allies, themselves, and their families.
It is the overriding and most urgent task of any British government, to do all in its power to help stem and reverse these deeply troubling trends. Our future depends on it. It is through hard-headed, systematic and sustained cooperation with our neighbours and allies, that we give practical expression to patriotism. Not through jingoism. Or empty, three-word slogans. Or lurches into geopolitical fantasy. They help no one. Except those who would do us harm. We also, and crucially, do it by recognising essential realities. Where power lies. How it is exercised. And how circumstances are evolving, and why.
In 1950 the United States was, with half the globe’s entire economic output, an unparalleled financial and industrial colossus. The USA, still the world’s hyperpower, is now reduced to around a quarter of the global economy. Its relative position has eroded, as the technology and energy supply advantages it enjoyed spread to others, over time. And the world has become more interconnected, sometimes in ways which challenge democracies and the exercise of legitimate state power. These developments make it harder – but, if anything, more important – for America to protect its interests and, in the process, those of its main allies. Allies which now must make an increasing contribution to the effort.
The USA is indispensable for Britain. The reverse is not the case. We fool ourselves if we think otherwise.
The headline-grabbing Asia-Pacific defence deal, announced by President Biden and his Australian and British counterparts, throws that into sharp relief. The United Kingdom’s nuclear submarine technology has always been part of an American programme. A unique deal, over half a century. Which the Biden administration has now judged it appropriate to extend to Australia. When we talk about the USA, it is about much more than the continental-scale country with its capital city in Washington DC.
Geopolitically, the United States is a global system of political, economic, financial and military structures centred on that country. What we refer to as the international rules-based system is fundamentally dependent on, and to a large extent actually is, those arrangements. It represents more than half of the world’s economy and defence spending. More than double China’s land area. And over a billion people. It is powerfully present across the globe. Europe’s vital contribution to the system is founded primarily on the European Union. And NATO. Both of which are essential to the success of the whole. The UK used to be a leading member of each.
Such are the benefits of a hugely privileged education, and a Bullingdon Club apprenticeship in destroying one’s surroundings, that a quality of extraordinary, arrogant foolishness appears to have become a pre-requisite for Cabinet rank in Her Majesty’s Government. Disregarding, misunderstanding and smashing up our vital alliances, and the essential structures and processes which make them effective is, deeply disturbingly, the philosophy – if such a term can be used – of the Cabinet.
As we have seen, America, under President Biden, is not abandoning its global role. Don’t be fooled by some of the commentary on Afghanistan. The tragedy facing so many is real. Our duty to help those affected, clear. But President Biden has made clear all along, he will implement a strategy of focusing on the most important, core tasks. And doing so with increased, concerted participation from the European Union, Asia-Pacific and other key allies who get with the programme.
The United Kingdom represents about three per cent of world defence spending. About three per cent of the global economy. One per cent of population. And a small fraction of a per cent of land area. For a country of our size and capabilities, facing the massive international challenges outlined earlier, there are three potential ways forward. Deny reality. Seek a free ride. Or, contribute.
I reject the first. Anyone keen to abandon reality, be my guest. I cannot advise you further. King Canute might want a word or two, though. Trying to free ride is a tempting thought, for some. Get North America, the EU, Asia-Pacific and other major US allies to do the heavy lifting. Fail to contribute. Reap the rewards. It is unconscionable. And doomed. Yet, barely disguised, it’s the policy being pursued by the current British government. What a declaration of political, intellectual and moral bankruptcy. Worse, there’s more than a strand within this government actively seeking a US administration which would throw the world under a bus. One which would abandon Europe. And other core, global commitments. We can speculate about the possible motivations for wishing that. None are good.
There is a patriotic alternative. It requires realism, idealism and determination. First, reverse the strategic error of the Johnson Brexit. There has never been a majority in the country for the Johnson, Vote Leave, chainsaw surgery, bleeding stump approach. A wildly flailing political lurch which tears apart the United Kingdom, and undermines the global alliance on which we depend. The Johnson Brexit has failed. It must end.
We need, as an immediate step, an agricultural and food standards arrangement with the EU. Removing eighty per cent of the bottlenecks at the Great Britain/Northern Ireland internal frontier, recklessly introduced by the Johnson government, in its determination to rip the UK out of the EU single market and customs union. And we must urgently negotiate a return to both. Or substantially identical arrangements. The UK’s economy will bleed out – slowly if we’re lucky; faster than many imagine, if we’re not – if the Johnson Brexit is allowed to continue.
Second, redouble our contribution to global security, through our defence, aid and diplomatic capabilities. Europe’s territorial defence is our defence. The US, under any administration, strongly wants Europe to play a full, much-enhanced part in its own security. As the so-called ‘AUKUS’ deal on nuclear submarines illustrates, global force projection has its place. With our main allies. And with our European house in order
Our overseas aid is both a moral duty and a service to national security. Cutting it is exceptionally short-sighted. Europe, with the UK playing its full part, can truly be the world’s development assistance superpower. In our national and collective interests. Britain’s diplomatic capabilities are hollowed out. The tenures of the outgoing Foreign Secretary and his predecessor resulted in a precipitate decline in the quality, reputation and impact of British diplomacy. It’s our face to the world and our means of influencing it. Leveraging the UK’s economic, defence and reputational strengths, anchored in powerful alliances on our own continent and beyond.
Pretending that our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, our membership of the G7, or the ‘five-eyes’ intelligence sharing group, can shore up the position of a self-isolating, so-called ‘Global Britain’, is dishonest and deeply irresponsible. And it’s seen as such in major capital cities across the world. No diplomacy can be effective in the face of such a crass denial of reality.
Third, having re-established ourselves as serious partners, we have a chance of making a real difference to the achievement of the most important global tasks facing humanity. Preservation of the planet. Prevention of nuclear annihilation and other major security threats. Protecting public health. Ending poverty and spreading prosperity. Fail on any one of these and it’s game over.
To imagine that we can succeed without half the global economy – the US, EU, Japan and other allies – making a joint, concerted effort of historic proportions, is to fool ourselves. And fatally so. To believe that the UK can free ride, in a fantasy bubble of fake-patriotism and historically, strategically illiterate hubris, is to make our country and its people a laughing stock. At best. A pariah state to be contained, by the USA and its allies, at worst.
All these tasks are immensely difficult. They are also risky and expensive. Risks and expense only exceeded – many, many times over – by those of failure. The catastrophic experiment which the current Prime Minister and his narrow, Vote Leave Cabinet are trying to perform on the country is unpatriotic. Like paddling while Kabul burns. It undermines our security, prosperity and well-being. It is reckless. It is wrong. It must end. If not, we will never be forgiven. So, please, join me. And help bring Britain back
This is the Reboot Alternative Leader of the Opposition. Somewhere in a parallel universe we are being offered a vision of what Britain could be, a place where the real challenges are being addressed and answers offered.
Before I turn in detail to the policies which a Labour government will pursue, I want to say something about the context within which the next government will work.
There is no question this is the most challenging period this country has faced since WWII. Then we stood united against a common enemy and supported by friends and allies across the world. Today, under this government, we are a divided Nation, and we have turned our back on friends and allies in Europe. The calls for Scottish independence are loud; our young people face the toughest economic future for generations, and the country is divided over the new arrangements with the European Union.
All of these divisions have been created and made worse by this Tory govt. They have chosen a path to power forged through deliberate division, discarding all restraint, pitting citizen against citizen, rich against poor, community against community. They believe in winners and losers, so long, of course, as they are the winners and the rest of us the losers.
We must face the fact that those of us who would normally be united against them have been divided. The Nation is still divided on Brexit, with millions of people on either side of the argument. But we all know that the challenges we face- particularly climate change, the threat of another pandemic, and even our economic future. All require unity of purpose, a degree of consensus, an understanding of the position of those with whom we disagree. If we do not have this level of agreement, there will be no winners. There can only be losers. We must bridge the divides between us, as an opposition and as a Nation.
As a Party, we took a decision to accept the outcome of a referendum process we did not control, which showed a small majority of those who voted in favour of an exit from the European Union. To achieve that majority, a faction of the Tory Party made a series of reckless promises. I won’t rehearse them all here; it would take far too long. We cannot undo what has happened. We must try to do our best for the country in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
And the first thing we must do is hold the government to account for every single commitment it made. For every advantage they claimed would ensue, for every promise made to every citizen of this country—truth matters in politics.
First, we must acknowledge the genuine hurt and anger of the millions of our citizens who voted to remain in the EU. Those who have seen their businesses destroyed or their children and grandchildren’s expected future snatched away by the government. We have to plan for a greener future in which they can believe, to know once more they are listened to and have some say in the path the country takes.
The word “never” does not belong in politics. In a few short years, those of us now in politics will be gone, and new generations will take charge of the country and decide what they wish to do. Neither I nor any politician can or should seek to constrain our successors in their choices. We do not know all the challenges they will face or the best response to them.
I promise that any Labour-led government will look at all the country’s issues and decide what to do based solely on the greatest benefit for the country as a whole. We will explain what we choose to do and why. We will listen to other parties, work with them, and build a new cooperative approach to politics.
We cannot achieve that without radical reform of the way we do politics. We have been complacent about the state of our democracy. It has not been fundamentally renewed since the horse was the main means of land transport. The place in which we debate and the conventions we follow make little sense to many people. They are an important part of our history. But they should not get in the way of the business of government.
The result is growing disinterest and alienation, clearly seen in the low voter registration and turnout at elections, particularly among the young. This situation shames all British politicians. The future is theirs, but they have no say in it. We must make changes so that they see the benefits of participation and we have their trust.
Today, because I trust the people of this country to forge a new direction for their country’s politics, I commit the party I lead to these actions:
The establishment of Citizens’ Conventions in all the nations and regions to discuss and recommend reform of our institutions and governance;
In the first term of a new Government led by my party, the introduction of proportional representation for all elections, to make every vote count, and end the crude division between a winner and a loser;
Reform of electoral law and Party funding.
The business of government is largely and necessarily boring. It’s about making sure the country functions properly. It’s about making sure our public services are relevant, effective and efficient. It requires honesty and integrity, skill, experience, knowledge and pragmatism. Government is not a popularity contest or a game show. Politics may have some of those characteristics, but government should not. Our government has become a pantomime of political caricatures vying for votes by making promises to deliver impossible dreams.
Talentless political hacks are leading us with all the dubious self-confidence of secondhand car salesmen. We are witnessing corruption on a scale never before experienced in our modern history. Our country’s capacity to deliver even the essential functions of a civilised state has been deliberately crippled by an ideologically imposed experiment in “austerity”. The money tree was just hidden out of sight.
The COVID pandemic has given the world a sharp lesson. Humanity survives together, or it may not survive at all. We are none of us safe until all of us are safe. We face challenges that require a united global response. The Labour Party will ensure that this country plays its full part in the international cooperation mechanisms to achieve that. We reject isolationism; we reject small-minded nationalism; we reject the division of communities.
The country has found out, painfully, what happens when a government seeks to replace science and expertise and prompt action with political “management”—competence in government matters. The Labour Party recognises that we must cooperate with others to deliver what this country needs.
We believe that it is our responsibility to play a positive role in creating a better future for each of us and our children. A life that leaves no one behind. That restores dignity and mutual respect. A life that builds up the future for our young. Creating a social, economic and natural environment fit for them.
Now I want to turn to the policies that will achieve this…