Departmental questions are not like Prime Minister’s questions. PMQs are a torrid rumbustious affair, with noise, flack, catcalling and worse. In addition to this, the big exchange tends to come early on in proceedings. The Leader of the Opposition will stand early in the half hour slot and stick it to the Prime Minister, bringing the chamber to full blast almost immediately.
Not so in departmental questions. There is a different rhythm to these sessions. Unlike the frenzy of PMQs, departmental questions start with back-benchers quizzing junior ministers. In this way it is something of a proving ground for young talent.
And while the early exchanges of Education questions were under way, the big beasts sat, eyeing one another. On the government front bench, the Secretary of State himself—Michael Gove, detested by his opponents in the Labour Party for being so… so effective. It is getting to the stage now where his education reforms are beginning to look irreversible. Nothing puts the wind up an opponent quite like success. And there he sat, a beast of some considerable size, purring on the front bench, legs crossed, slip-ons gleaming (identical to those favoured by the PM) jotting on the back of his order paper.
Opposite him, Tristram Hunt, the MP for Stoke, newly-promoted as Gove’s opposite number, and around these two, the session groaned into life, the Speaker keeping things moving at a whip-crack pace through the opening exchanges. Barry Gardiner (Lab, Brent North) complained bitterly that there was a shortage of investment in primary school places in his borough, to which one Government Minister, David Laws, no less, now Minister of State for Schools, replied by saying that investment in primary education in the Borough was up by 240 per cent, since this government came to power.