We have sadly reached that point in the year when, with no much happening, the media regresses into what they feel most comfortable with – gossiping about personalities as though the world wasn’t facing the most dire crisis for a century. What crisis, what crisis? as one prime minister famously said. Never mind that 130,000 families are about to lose their homes as the housing cuts roll in, that austerity is being pushed manically beyond any sensible limits, that real incomes are stagnating for a decade, that bosses now grasp for themselves 350 times more than their average paid worker, that the hollowing out of British manufacturing foretells declining UK living standards in future decades, that there is no new business model in sight to replace the one broken by the financial crash, that no banking reform worth the name has been imposed to prevent another massive financial crash – the list of global and national threats goes on and on. But none of this makes the headlines – only the antics of wealth, bling and celebrity.
With nothing much else to talk about, there is an endless fascination with PMQs. It is noisy, knockabout, shallow – bad pantomime, perfect for the hacks to let fly with gladiatorial burlesque about blood on the carpet, leadership challenges, and the fate of the country being fought out hand-to-hand. The truth is rather more mundane. It is a theatrical spectacle which has nothing to do with real politics (which doesn’t take place in the Commons anyway), a weekly joust that feeds the bile of the media, focuses on personal vituperation every time over serious policy, and allows a prime minister well versed in cringing abuse to give an impression of dominance however bereft of vision. Cameron’s good at that: he never answers the question asked, he comes brimming with pre-cooked abuse ready to be launched at the slightest cue, and he uses his privilege of always having the last word to cascade his opponents with mockery as insolent as he can get away with. Punch and Judy, but a lot nastier.
But it shows how cheap PMQs is and how cheap are some of the commentaries – settling scores, promoting or simply inventing whispering campaigns, building on vaudeville as though it was real. What is disturbing is that political culture is now so trivialised that ideology and vision – let alone principle – are discounted to the point of caricature. One wonders what would be the modern version of Caligula making his horse consul; no doubt one of the parliamentary sketch-writers will soon tell us.