Monday, June 22, 2009

Confronting Margaret Thatcher

Reading Roy Hattersley's article on PMQs in today's Times, I was struck by this paragraph...

Years ago, when I deputised for the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Speaker Weatherill required participants in PMQs to accept that question time was a time for questions. Whenever I prepared to confront Margaret Thatcher - elation mixed with terror - my main concern was to get through the first half dozen words without my syntax, or even my intonation, creating the suspicion that the sentence was not interrogative. Standing behind the opposition dispatch box did not provide protection from the indignity of being told to sit down. The briefest preamble was ruled out of order.

Is Lord Hattersley's memory failing him? Or is mine? I cannot recall a single occasion when he questioned Margaret Thatcher at PMQs. Can anyone else? So far as I remember, whenever he deputised for Kinnock he faced either Willie Whitelaw, John Wakeham or Geoffrey Howe.

UPDATE: A commenter says he spoke at PMQs on 10th January 1985 and 18th February 1988. I don't know what the circumstances were, but this is interesting because if Margaret Thatcher was willing to take questions from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, perhaps Gordon Brown should have done so when David Cameron was away earlier this year.

38 comments:

davidc said...

' Mr Speaker Weatherill required participants in PMQs to accept that question time was a time for questions.'

how very 1980's !!

JMB said...

He was on the Today programme this morning. Talked rubbish as usual, the only problem with Cameron asking childish questions to rouse his backbenchers. No mention of Broon never answering questions and just reading out slogans to rouse his backbenchers.

Blue Eyes said...

Indeed, the interesting point about this is that the Speaker was actually previously in charge of the House. Is it now possibly to return to such a situation?

John said...

10th January 1985.
18th February 1988.

Others, I suspect, but those two spring to mind.

Anonymous said...

Also 17th July 1990 - it's relatively easy to find out with a quick search of Hansard.

Anonymous said...

Hattersly also said today that it was Camerons fault that he did not ask proper questions. No mention of Brown never answering them.

Unsworth said...

It's a question of confidence, isn't it? Thatcher was prepared to stand her ground and argue the case with anyone. But Brown? Didn't he 'write' a book about 'Courage'? Maybe he thought he was 'writing' about beer.

William said...

Iain, are you suggesting that Brown has even 1% of the bottle that Thatcher did?

It Will Come to Me said...

Iain and John 9:47, you write as if you are relying on memory and not looking the facts up. Is this really the case? If so, I am in awe.

Anonymous said...

I remember him at a PMQ's in the late 80's when I was a young LP researcher. He, apparently, floored her with something (which Kinnock never did) and there was much joking among the Labour researchers about the new Hattersley Kinnock dream ticket.

Carl Menson said...

If this is true, and Gordon Brown refuses to take questions from Cameron's deputy while Thatcher took questions from Kinnock's deputy, surely this is a resigning issue?

If it is correct that Brown is flaunting parliamentary protocol, he must go. I would like to hear Cameron making more of this issue. Why isn't the BBC reporting it?

David Boothroyd said...

It's only recently that it has become custom and practice for both Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to be substituted by their deputies if one of them is unavailable, so there would have been occasional opportunities for Hattersley to lead off at PMQs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Prime Minister does not get to choose who asks them questions, of course.

Chris Paul said...

Presumably either late Margaret, or Major, or Blair changed this convention. Or by happenstance two leaders were away at once and everyne thought: "Ah, that went very well."

Or perhaps it was the blessed Margaret who changed the previous protocol because she didn't trust any of her colleagues not to knife her?

Anonymous said...

Carl, I think you'll find what Gordo does is FLOUT parliamentary protocol. And your suggestion that it's a resigning issue is over-excited. It has become convention that when a deputy stands in for the PM, the leader of the opposition doesn't ask the questions.

Richard Abbot said...

I have a useful rule of thumb when it comes to Roy Hattersley. If you have not fully researched or made up your mind about a particular matter then simply listen to Roy Hattersley's take on it, and then proceed to the polar opposite point of view and you will be somewhere near to the real truth. It works every time. But, it never ceases to amaze me how one man can be so wrong about so many things, for so many years.

Timothy Belmont said...

Hattersley has been wheeled out and into the Newsnight studio quite a lot recently, for some reason.

The man has worn well; I'll say that for him. It's probably still advisable to wear a visor when directly opposite him, though.

Carl Menson said...

The Labour trolls are out in force today, Iain!

Anonymous @10.20am, you can peddle the Labour line as much as you want. The fact is, it has now been shown that it is expected for a Prime Minister to face questions from an opposition deputy. Brown refuses to do this, and, as such, should resign.

Obviously the BBC, being the voicepiece of Labour, won't report this, but why isn't Cameron making more of it?

john in cheshire said...

Hattersh*t will always be a tub of lard to me.

wapping boy said...

Richard Abbot has hit the nail. Hattersley is a "useful idiot": whenever I see him on Newsnight I am reminded that in its heart NuLab is still an unreformed socialist statist nightmare.

Anonymous said...

You may be being unfair on Brown (gulp) here. It's a fairly recent phenomenon that says that when the PM is away the opposition leaders also stay away. It rarely happens the other way round - because PMs take more overseas visits, and can't control the timing as well. I can't think of an example of the PM missing PMQs because of the absence of the Opposition leader - though the reverse is true.

Blair certainly faced Hague (and Campbell - the Libs being between leaders - Hague had a good quip about all three parties being represented by someone other than the real leader) when DC was on paternity leave. And Brown took the aborted PMQs with Hague and Cable (Clegg was on paternity leave) when Ivan Cameron died. The following week, while DC was still away, Brown was in the US.

Anyway, who would want to see William demolish Brown when you can have the entertainment of a Hague n' Hattie ding dong?

Cynic said...

Surely the real story here is that he was sop terrified that he couldn't really do his job properly

Non Runner said...

Funnily enough, I stumbled across Thatcher's 1979 speech to the Foreign Policy Association the other day and was struck by how moderate and sensible her comments then on Iran were.

"I do not believe we should judge Islam by events in Iran. Least of all should we judge it by the taking of hostages. There is a tide of self confidence and self awareness in the Muslim world which preceded the Iranian revolution and will outlast its present excesses. The West should recognise this with respect, not hostility."

Oh, that a politician would speak in such a tempered manner about the Middle East today.

Jon Forest said...

Broon would rather eat his own toenails than face Hague at PM's questions.
If Cameron had even half of Hague's ability and wit at the despatch box, Broon would have been led gibbering from the Chamber weeks ago.

golden_balls said...

if your going to blog about something at least do your homework first ian.

13 minutes after your inital post john found this information !

don't you just hate a half hearted blogger tsk tsk

Anonymous said...

This is all from memory but:

i remember
hattersley questioning thatcher,
kinnick questioning deputies eg howe
beckett questioning major
john smith questioning tony newton

i wonder if it all changed with the "Hezza-Prezza" show. i don't remember tony blair ever questioning heseltine. did he think questioning the deputy prime minister was beneath him? did it all change from there?

Anonymous said...

i also remember when john smith died beckett was away once. beckett had been shadow leader of the house and her deputy was nick brown.

i am sure nick brown questioned john major at PMQs. it must be quite easy to find on hansard.

tub of lard said...

i have had enough of being compared to that idiot.

i have a degree you know.

Thats News said...

The Prime Minister does not get to choose who asks them questions, of course

Well, that used to be the case...

Also
Speaker’s election Whip-marks starting to show

Anonymous said...

He completely skewered her on the poll tax - even getting her to call it the poll tax on the floor of the house. So, yes, your memory is defective.

Anonymous said...

Carl,I am anonymous @ 10:20, and so far from being a Labour troll, I have voted nothing but Conservative since 1983. The stupidity of your deduction is of a piece with your original observation. wv: consie, believe it or not.

simon said...

All interesting stuff but isn't this symptomatic of the wider malaise in the Commons? PMQ is knockabout entertainment but has little to do with serious governance. Yet it dominates the discussion and media coverage of Parliament with much fascination on who has won/lost (which often equates to scoring cheap points and avoiding answering difficult questions). Outside the world of Westminster insiders and the minority who follow politics obsessively, the whole thing is a big turn-off yet does a lot to colour the public's view of what parliamentary politics is about.

Last week, for example, after the usual display of partisan harrumphing and hear-hearing at PMQs, a friend of mine remarked: "It just shows that they have learned absolutely nothing (from the public reaction to the expenses scandal and their loss of esteem)". I suspect this view is widespread.

Anonymous said...

I remember my A level Govt & Politics teacher asserting that Hattersley was the best opposition 'leader' at PMQs, whereas Kinnock was weak.

Aston Read Limited said...

This is part of a Labour spin operation.

Gordon Brown gets so crushed in PMQs that they are now trying to make excuses for him.

Perhaps if Brown actually honestly answered questions rather than spreading lies and deceit PMQs might be a bit more civil. But he's the one who's made it like it is.

The real question is who is coordinating all this Labour spin right now ? There's a sudden wave of newspaper article and unusual people coming forward.

PS Have to agree with JMB on the Today programme - which was outrageous as no counter point was put. (* Standard issue BBC help for the left *)

Anonymous said...

@ARLtd 12:51

Is it Simon Lewis, who helped the Queen after Diana? Both Damian Green and Gordon, ready to leave it all and turn to education (Damian in Finchley). Songs of Praise. Now Hattersley.

Cynic said...

With Gordon's reputation for throwing Nokias and knocking printers off desks, would he pass a CRB check for teaching?

Anonymous said...

As others have said, it's a relatively new convention that the PM only answers questions from the leader of the opposition.
Hattersley questioned Thatcher, and later Major several times.

On one occasion both Kinnock and Hattersley were in an NEC meeting voting on whether to expell members of Militant. The vote was expected to be so close that neither wanted to leave the meeting.
There were desperate attempts to get to the vote in time for Kinnock to get to PMQs, but when it became clear this wouldn't happen, Denis Healey (as Labour's No.3) had to race to the Commons to question Thatcher, apparently writing questions in his car!

Dimoto said...

Hattersley was a totally useless politician, like Wedgy Benn, he never ceases with his project to rewrite history. His articles are uniformly boring.
Why do newspapers keep paying for this tosh ?

Anonymous said...

Yes he did do Prime Minster's Question Time a few times. I remember one time when he did manage to get the Iron Lady quite rattled, he used a technique of doing quite short questions(I believe it was televised).

The tradition is if the Prime Minster is away the Leader of the House of Commons usually takes Prime Minster's Question Time, unless there is a Deputy Prime Minster at the time. John Biffen filled in a few times in the 80s for the PM. I don't know if Wille Whitelaw ever did it though(I will have to check Hansard), I do remember Heseltine and Prescott clashing over PMQs one time in the 90s (the newspapers at the time had Hezza versus Prezza in them).