Commons Theatre


MPs have to face the terror of performing in the chamber. George Bentinck did not speak in debate for two decades in the nineteenth century. These days silence is inconceivable. All MPs feel obliged to express the opinions both of their constituents and their party, and even sometimes their own, and to do so regularly and, if possible, dazzlingly.

John Thurso (MP) told me, “the HoC chamber is a bear-pit. When discussing the big issues, and at PMQs[1], it is like a storm, a great crash on the rocks. No other forum delivers so much adrenalin and demands so much nerve[2].” The gladiatorial battles – between The Chancellor and his Shadow last Tuesday, for example – demands from each command of their own policy and detail of their opponents’ failures. 

George Osborne attacked Labour’s credibility, and Ed Balls personally, saying only communists endorse their approach. Balls hit back with unemployment statistics to demonstrate the Chancellor’s incompetence. For a ‘stranger’, as spectators are called, it was gripping: so much is at stake, reflecting disputes across the country about cuts, jobs and debt. And there was a sting within these emotional exchanges giving the impression that these two men don’t like each other very much.  Egged on by interjections from supporters at their backs, this was the Commons at its most partisan and antagonistic.

Changing the rules of combat in our national political theatre has proved difficult. As I heard a Minister say recently at a conference, “The chamber is surprisingly small…. You have MPs banked up in front of you and MPs banked up behind you and when you speak – for example at PMQs – the mass of noise can be overwhelming. If you fail, then your side will leave with their heads down.” 

Combat is only one of many theatrical genres in the Commons. When discussing less contentious legislation, the Chamber can be positively sedate, or dull, or amusing. The best performers tease each other gently, even flirtatiously. When Jacob Rees-Mogg  (Con) and Chris Bryant (Lab) spoke eloquently last Monday about how Ministers should take parliament seriously, they flattered each other as much as they did their own parties. These deft performers sound confident but not complacent. The Chamber quietens when they speak. As you get to know the characters and learn to fathom the quirky moods of the House, it becomes addictive.  Even now I feel the urge to return so I’m off to listen to discussion of a bill about passive flue systems…

[1] Prime Minister’s Question Time

[2] All MPs quoted have given me permission to publish their words.