Commons Diary: Diane Abbott
"Until you have had to do it, you cannot truly appreciate how scary it is to address a packed House of Commons at PMQs."
Prime Ministers Questions has always been one of the great Parliamentary set pieces. So it was with considerable nervousness that I spent some of last week preparing for it when I stood in for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition Jeremy Corbyn.
MPs and others place great store in performance at PMQs. But it is not clear that the general public do, certainly not the 10-second clip that some of them may see on the Six o’clock news.
Curiously you can be a good performer at Prime Ministers Questions and it have no impact on the fortunes of your party. William Hague is a witty man with a feel for language and some good one-liners. So when he was leader of the Conservatives, he frequently bested Tony Blair at PMQ’s. Yet it made no difference to the Conservatives. They still lost to Labour at the next general election.
But a very bad performance under the eye of not just the entire House of Commons but the entire parliamentary lobby, can seem fatal to personal or political credibility. So I prepared for PMQs with some trepidation. I had support from my own political advisors. But I was also helped by the Labour Party professionals who usually support Jeremy himself. One of them was a young man that Jeremy described as having an unusual superpower; any question you might put to the Prime Minister, this young man can tell you word perfect exactly what the Conservative leader would say in response. It’s a great asset, but I’m not sure even Marvel comic and Disney can turn into a blockbuster.
Until you have had to do it, you cannot truly appreciate how scary it is to address a packed House of Commons. The Chamber is small, too small when full. You are faced with a wall of sound, you know that people are watching you on their televisions, possibly even all over the world and there are also top class hecklers in front of you, and sometimes behind you.
In the end, my first outing at PMQ’s did not go that badly. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, stood in for the Prime Minister. He was civil and courteous, and we were both a little nervous, I think. However, I have since learnt that there are Tory attack ads featuring me once again in the run-up to a general election. Plus ca change. In the end, once I hit my stride I rather enjoyed the experience.
Prime Ministers Questions is a spectacle that the Victorians would have been familiar with. But it was followed this week by a very twenty first century form of political expression in the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. They are an environmental pressure group with the stated aim of using civil disobedience to compel government action on climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse. Dressed as octopi and other flora and fauna, the Extinction Rebellion activists blockaded the roads around Westminster all week to draw attention to their cause.
People grumbled about the inconvenience. Particularly right wing pundits. But there is no doubt that Extinction Rebellion got their point across.
My only advice is that they should say more about climate justice. It some of the poorest regions in the world like low lying areas of Bangladesh and innumerable small island states that suffer most from climate change. And those issues should be more to the forefront in the climate movement in the West.
So Prime Ministers Questions: middle aged, formal even archaic. Extinction Rebellion: youthful, informal, inventive and definitely a bit anarchic. But both doing the job of political activity down the centuries, speaking truth to power.
Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
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