Tony Blair, David Cameron and me

Having never been inside the House of Commons chamber despite working in government circles for over a decade, I put in a request with my local MP’s office, and managed get a ticket for the weekly showpiece: Prime Minister’s Questions.
You’re separated from the proceedings by a thick glass wall, floor to ceiling – and it ruins the sense of ‘being there’. You might as well be watching it on TV, albeit in HD. In fact, from up there, you do spend quite a lot of time watching the TV screens, since you can really only see from the despatch boxes to the Speaker’s chair. Bad luck if you’re hoping to see any Lib Dems or minority parties.
Throughout PMQs there’s a steady hubbub in the chamber, which comes across crystal-clear via the speakers embedded in the benches. But as soon as anyone mentions soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, and particularly any fatalities, the whole place falls absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop, not that anyone holding any pins would have dared drop them.
Blair was forced to give a lengthy and complex answer on military pay, which – frankly – was impossible to follow without a slide, whiteboard, handout or something. And suddenly I’m aware how low-tech it all is. Never mind the lack of visual aids – they confiscated any technology (phones, PDAs, iPods) on the way in. Nobody in the press gallery was even using a laptop that I could see.
But after PMQs, once it’s thinned out, the chamber took on a very different tone. John Hutton gave a statement on replacing the Child Support Agency, and Peter Hain introduced the new Northern Ireland justice bill: an unexpected bonus for an Ulster boy such as myself. And during both Ministerial appearances, MPs were quite happy to offer (apparently genuine) praise and support to those on the opposite benches.
Most of it comes across as (shock!) constructive debate! Then suddenly, pressed on whether the proposed CSA changes can’t happen faster, John Hutton turns unexpectedly vitriolic. Fingers point. Gestures get animated. It seemed to come out of the blue… but thankfully, cordial relations are soon restored.
The MPs are generally pretty disrespectful of the place. People not looking at those who are speaking to them. A surprising number doing their paperwork rather than paying attention. Feet on the furniture. One of the junior Ministers seemed to be reading Auto Trader at one point?
But it was a surprisingly positive experience overall. PMQs wasn’t as much fun as I expected; it comes across as a pantomime, an opportunity to let off steam once a week, an interruption to the otherwise civilised atmosphere. The proceedings which followed were (for the most part) adult, reasoned, calm and constructive.
Maybe politics isn’t as bad as it’s portrayed after all. PMQs makes for great TV, but it’s simply not representative of Commons business.