Fraser Nelson was predictably cruel in his comments about Khalid Mahmood’s question yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions: “He stuttered, gasped, looked at his papers. How difficult can it be to ask one question?”
Well, you’ll never know the answer to that, Fraser, but believe me, it’s a lot harder than it looks, and certainly a lot harder than sitting in your office criticising the efforts of others.
Asking a question – any question – at PMQs is surely the most daunting of experiences. For a start, there are nearly three hundred people opposite who are positively willing you to fail. And that’s before you even consider that you’re being watched on live TV throughout the land. You’re also aware that there are reporters in the gallery ready to snipe and sneer at the first sign of a stumble. And on top of that, there’s a huge amount of pressure from your own supporters who desperately want you to succeed. Writing a blog or a column is a cake walk next to that.
As a back bencher I asked the (previous) PM a number of questions on a range of subjects, from child benefit and apprenticeships to drugs and knife crime, although the only one people remember was on light pollution, in 2003. Having instigated the Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into the effects of light pollution on astronomy, I stood up to ask “when was the last time the prime minister had a clear view of the Milky Way galaxy?”
All. Hell. Broke. Loose.
The opposition started bawling and shouting, our side started cheering; an awful din. The only thing to do was plough on (no pun intended). I got to the end of the question without stumbling or forgetting my line and – crucially – without being called out of order by the Speaker for taking too long. I had been well and truly bloodied. I felt exhilerated. But it could so easily have gone wrong. It often does, and, frankly, no journalist who has not experienced it himself, and who therefore has no grasp of the pressures individuals are under at that moment when the Speaker calls your name, has the right to criticise those who have.