The Lost Art of Parliamentary Debate
Before the pandemic, I represented my school on a number of occasions as a debater. To put it mildly, I enjoyed it, in fact I later described standing in a debating chamber as “my happy place.” So, when questions arose this week over Angela Rayner’s distracting Boris Johnson in the chamber of the House of Commons, I naturally took an interest. To jog some reader’s memories, an anonymous Conservative MP accused the deputy leader of the opposition, Angela Rayner of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the Prime Minister because she “could not compete with his Oxford Union debating skills.” Obviously, this is insane and sexist, and not the primary subject of this article. Certainly, I would challenge any MP to sit through a long debate without having to adjust their seating position. The MPs evidently lacked political judgement, and clearly lacked an understanding of what makes a good debater.
Firstly, the MPs helped Rayner. Misogyny is something she as a woman has experienced consistently throughout her career, and the Prime Minister has a poor record with women (his numerous accounts of infidelity come to mind.) It also helped to add to this currently prevailing view that the Conservative party is old fashioned and out of touch, even though such a view is somewhat deceptive. The MP certainly did not do anyone in his own party any favours.
Furthermore, it took the ridiculous presumption that Boris is a good debater. Boris certainly is an entertainer, throughout his career, both allies and enemies have acknowledged his natural ability to laugh at himself. It has given him a remarkable ability to control a narrative, because how can one become the butt of the joke one has already decided to become. In the commons, however, Boris is a poor performer compared to his skill on the campaign trail. Faced with real questions about real issues, Boris resorts to clumsy humour and bluster, perfect for the boring leader of the opposition to pick through with the forensic ability only a lawyer could muster. Some may mistake the Prime Minister’s humour for wit; however, a true wit is able to answer a question thoroughly but with at least some charm and charisma. Boris does not.
Neither Boris nor Rayner are particularly bright. On the one hand, Boris may have a talent for linguistics and at least a passable understanding of history, but his laziness has overcome any natural aptitude for learning. Once again, Boris uses bluster to disguise any lack of depth. Rayner is not much better; she left school at a young age, and has no university education. Her reasons for doing this are well intentioned, she wanted to provide a good life for her child as a teenage mother. However, perhaps she could have considered furthering her education before putting herself forwards as somebody who could become a leading figure in the government of our country.
Further showing a poorly developed intellect, Rayner would suggest such comments come from a long list of ‘isms’. They do not. Resorting to accusations of prejudice is a cheap political tactic, avoiding any chance of real debate over the issues, and suggests Rayner fears being outwitted in a debate. Certainly, I would accuse Rayner of cheap political tricks, though the allegations were utterly laughable. Whilst I believe a government with Rayner in would prove disastrous, as a member of our democratically elected representatives, she has every right to share her views. I merely question whether Rayner is up to the task in terms of her intelligence (a question, I must add, should be asked also of the prime minister.)
Certainly, in her speeches, Rayner’s candour is not politically wise or as endearing as the candour of figures such as Lord (Kenneth) Clarke. Rayner famously described senior Conservatives as “scum”, a comment for which she did apologise. It displayed a lack of political talent. Showing a respect for one’s opponent and their views is a lost art of the debate, with politicians often giving into temptation and choosing to get a cheer from their supporters. Rayner’s comments will have got a cheer from her cheerleaders, but is likely to prove a turn off to potential voters who voted for the Conservatives in the past.
Both Boris and Rayner are guilty of cheapening the art of debate and lowering the quality of our politics. Sadly, Conservative MPs threw Rayner the ace in this particular debate, and stopped any real and deep discussion on the issue taking place at a later date.