Gordon Brown and Prime Minister’s Question Time.
The new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is in trouble. He is being overwhelmed at the moment by what a former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, called ‘events, dear boy, events’. The Opposition Parties had a field day this week. What were the issues? Why does Prime Minister’s Question Time matter?
The British Government has not had a good time recently. First there was the loss in the governmental post of confidential CDs containing data on 25 million citizens. MPs, political journalists and commentators poured scorn on the government and its administration. The dust was still in the air when along came another political hot potato: the issue of government sleaze. Just as the Prime Minister was trying to re-establish his priorities after the problems of a potential foot-and-mouth epidemic, and the problems causes by summer floods, up comes the issue of unlawful donations to Labour Party funds. It transpires that a British business man, and friend of Tony Blair, has been giving significant donations to the Labour Party under other peoples’ names. This has been going on, according to the BBC, for four years. Some in the Party knew about this and turned contributions down, others, who claim that they did not know about this, including senior members of Brown’s cabinet, accepted donations and claim not to have known. The scandal has already caused the resignation of the Party’s General Secretary, a major blow to the Party and hence to the Government. John Mendelson, the Party fund-raiser, and Brown appointee, knew about the arrangements and has not reported them to Gordon Brown. More resignations are likely. The sleaze raises questions about Gordon Brown’s authority. It really does look like a mess.
Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQT) is a significant feature of British democracy. Once a week during the Parliamentary session, a Prime Minister must face the Opposition MPs for half-an-hour every Wednesday afternoon. It can be a very rough ride when ‘events’ are not moving in a Government’s favor. This week, Gordon brown sat grim-faced on the Government front-bench as the Commons witnessed the Government’s humiliation. The leader of the Official Opposition can make a number of unscripted interventions. The leader of the third largest part, the Liberal Democrats, can make two. The questions can be fast, furious and devastating as they were today. Gordon Brown is briefed for the occasion but must essentially think out the answers on the spur of the moment.
Does PMQT matter? The House of Commons is a confrontational pit and a place in which politics can be transformed into drama in a way that vividly reveals the mood of government or of the country. Brown today was subjected to a brutal series of attacks that will have unsettled his followers and damaged the moral of the Government. David Cameron effectively displayed his Parliamentary power in a very noisy House and greatly boosted Conservative Party moral whilst members of the Government cringed. He depicted Brown as a control fanatic who has lost control. The greatest cheer went up when the Acting Leader of the Liberal Democrats said that the Prime Minister has been transformed ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean’. PMQT sets a tone and Brown’s Government is looking very battered: problems in the financial sector; floods; potential foot-and-mouth incident; confidential information lost in the post and now sleaze. Leadership failure at PMQT for government and for the Opposition leadership can be fatal to a political career. This evening, Gordon Brown is looking very vulnerable. He will need to take quick action to restore his reputation. It does not end here.