During Prime Minister's Questions last week, we got a clear example of where politicians go wrong. Many insiders proclaim that 'Punch and Judy' politics are the cause of public disaffection for political proceedings, but that is apocryphal. Indeed, the knockabout shenanigans seen at PMQs are the best part of the Westminster week. The public would never take time out of their day to watch a dry discussion on farming subsidies or European integration, but they might tune in if they thought there might be a few digs at Prescott or one of the other amoral, conscience-less weasels that make up the front benches.
What actually causes the public to find politics so tiresome is the apparent inability to answer a straight question with a straight answer. It’s hardly ground-breaking to label MPs as evasive, but it is nevertheless true and much more dangerous than it is often credited as.
The specific example that played out last week illustrates the frustration, futility and counter-productivity of pursuing the policy of obfuscation.
David Cameron, that baby-faced, fallacious, smug Old Etonian asked Blair, “will the Prime Minister tell us, in plain English: will the House of Commons have a vote on whether Trident is replaced?”. Now, to anyone but a politician there would appear to be three possible answers: yes, no or we haven’t decided yet. However, what we predictably got from Blair was a fudge: “we will of course consult the House fully”.
Cameron’s next question echoed the thoughts of all normal viewers: “It is a simple enough question: the Chancellor wants a vote and the Education Secretary has said there ought to be vote; can we have a vote in the House?”. The question wasn’t “will you waffle on a bit about semi-related stuff please”, it couldn’t have been more specific, so we should assume that the Prime Minister took the opportunity to explain to the country the Government’s policy? Nah.
Blair: “I have already explained that my right hon. Friend .... we believe it is extremely important to have the fullest possible debate on the subject.” So, despite two opportunities to provide a simple answer, Blair declines. Instead, he reverts to his parlour-game of evasion and legalese with the inevitable effect of universal rancour. Blair may have aimed to frustrate Cameron, but he succeeds only in frustrating the viewers and the opinion-formers of the media.
Such is politics that there may occasionally be times when a straight answer would be inappropriate, perhaps in relation to ongoing military operations or legal proceedings but there is no reason for Blair to enrage the viewing electorate on this matter; he’s playing the game for the game’s sake. He could be forgiven if it were a one off, if it were an anomaly, but it isn’t. Refusal to answer a question is de rigueur unfortunately and it is the biggest obstacle to political popularity.
Dear Tony once said he was a "pretty straight kind of guy". It seems he was lying then as well.