PMQs – Is it just parliamentary theatre?

Prime Minister’s Questions is a divisive topic. On the face of it, it shows Parliament at its worst: raised voices, orchestrated heckling and debatable focus on answering the questions posed. However, it is the only time that the Prime Minister can ordinarily be held directly accountable to the elected representatives of the people.

Other major democracies such as the US, France and Germany have no equivalent. There is a constitutional reason why this is. The Head of their executive branch is directly elected. Britain, however, is a parliamentary democracy. The Prime Minister is indirectly elected and only hold their position by retaining the confidence of the House of Commons.

The spectacle of the House of Commons at PMQs is not to everyone’s taste. The two sides of the house jeer and shout with the Speaker having to plead for order on numerous occasions. Polls have consistently suggested that watching PMQs puts people off of politics. So, what is the purpose of PMQs and is it worth the ire that it brings from some quarters?

The PM faces regular heckling at PMQs

Like so much else in UK politics, PMQs has developed through time to be what it is today. They have been a permanent fixture in Parliament since 1961, when the PM was expected to answer questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, both for 15 minutes. During this period, it was not incumbent on the Prime Minister to answer the questions themselves and they would often refer them to the responsible minister (something unthinkable today). It was Margaret Thatcher who first insisted in answering all the questions herself and that convention has remained until today. In 1997, Tony Blair consolidated the two 15 minute sessions into one session of 30 minutes. In 2003, the time moved from 15.00 to 12.00, where it remains today.

During the 30 minute session the Leader of the Opposition is allowed to ask 6 questions. These can be taken in one set or as part of two blocks. The leader of the second biggest opposition party is allowed to ask 2 questions of the Prime Minister.

The House of Commons is extremely small and designed to be adversarial in nature

PMQs on Wednesday afternoon is one of the only times that the chamber of the House if packed full on MPs in an ordinary week. Except for special Ministerial Statements or Votes, it is also the only time that Parliament is shown live on television. This itself gives an indication of the importance of PMQs.

During packed PMQs, there is nowhere near enough space for all 650 MPs to take a seat. Many will stand a the Bar, behind Speaker’s Chair or sitting in the aisles.

During the 30 minutes the PM has to answer questions from a variety of quarters, including both the opposition and his own backbenchers. The Speaker will seek to call members from a variety of constituency backgrounds. This makes the breadth of questions that can be asked significant. The PM may go from answering a question about their economic policy to why a hospital is closing in North-East Derbyshire.

In his autobiography the last Speaker, Jon Bercow, admitted to regularly calling on maverick MPs like Peter Bone.

Such is the importance of PMQs that large segments of the week will be spent by both the PM and the Leader of the Opposition preparing for it. This is one of the reasons Blair wanted it move to once a week.

A few years ago I got a fascinating insight into PMQs by talking to Tim Flesher. Tim was Private Secretary for Parliamentary Affairs to Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s. He recalled how part of his job was to be familiar with the 650 MPs in the house and troublespot any potential areas of difficulty the PMQ might face in the House of Commons, including for PMQs. Today, a scrawl through the Twitter and an MPs website might give an inkling as to what challenging question they might ask – at the time, that luxury did not exist making it an extremely taxing task. Tim also recalled on numerous occasions sitting in the Thatcher’s kitchen until the late hours, with Thatcher insisting on personally making eggs for all those that stayed late – an image that one does not naturally conjur of the Iron Lady.

Thatcher did not start as a strong Commons performer, but was formidable by the time she left office in 1990.

The key part of Prime Minister’s Questions is the verbal battle between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. It is clear that some members of the House of Commons are better suited to this battle than others. In recent years some of the best Commons performers include Tony Blair, David Cameron and William Hague. The weakest include Theresa May and Gordon Brown.

Despite being on each week, it is rare to see a moment in PMQs, which capture the imagination of the wider public. It normally happens when either one side completely dominates the other, someone is embarrassed or makes a major mistake. However, there are times where PMQs has played a role in fundamentally altering public mindsets towards leaders:

Cameron v ‘Bottler Brown’: In 2007 Gordon Brown had taking over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister. At the time (it was before the Fixed Term Parliaments Act) Prime Ministers could call a Snap Election whenever they wanted. With Labour ahead in the polls it was widely expected that he would call and election, but didn’t. Cameron jumped on this opportunity to portray the PM as weak and indecisive:

Blair vs ‘weak, weak, weak’ Major: Tony Blair became Labour Leader in 1994 and was up against a Conservative Prime Minister who was struggling to keep his own party onside – particularly over the issue of the European Union. Tony Blair was able to characterise John Major as weak in this classic moment from January 1997, just a few months before the General Election:

‘Stalin to Mr Bean’: In 2007 the Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable produced a characterisation of Gordon Brown that had the House of Commons roaring with laughter:

Sometimes, PMQs can be used to put something on the news agenda. This was done extremely well by Ed Miliband in March 2013. The Conservatives under David Cameron had made a made a u-turn on the issue of minimum alcohol pricing. This was a minor issue in the grand scheme of politics that week. However, a well-deployed joke by Miliband placed it on the news agenda in the following days:

Yet, beyond these unusual exchanges that make headlines by themselves.

One of the important aspects of PMQs is that any Backbench can potentially ask the PM a question. They can apply via a ballot to ensure they are able to ask a question or can try to ‘catch the speaker’s eye’ by bobbing up and down. Asking a question of the PM is a big deal for backbenchers as it sends a strong signal to their constituents that they are standing up for their interests in parliament.

Often, however, backbench questions are orchestrated by the party whips. On the PM’s side, they are engineered to give the PM questions that they can answer easily or questions that reinforce a key message. For example, during the five years of Coalition Government backbench questions often referred to the government’s ‘long-term economic plan’. Meanwhile, backbench opposition questions are often planned to complement the line of attack taken by the Leader of the Opposition.

More often than not, PMQs is a seen as a poor advert for Politics:

It is easy to make the case against PMQs. It’s rowdy, childish and badly behaved. Too many of the questions from the government side are pointless and sycophantic, and the difficult questions are too often dodged. MPs on all sides seem more interested in making terrible jokes, or shouting each other down, than in holding the government to properly to account.

Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions

Yet, as the book above delves into, PMQs has a number of extremely important functions:

  1. It makes the Prime Minister directly accountable to Parliament

A key role of Parliament is to provide scrutiny of the Executive. PMQs allows the PM to be held directly accountable to MPs. There are no limits on what can be asked at PMQs and the PM has to be able to account for their government’s policy over a broad range of issues. The PM has to account not just for national policy, but for how it might be effecting people’s lives on a constituency level.

2. It makes the Government accountable to the Prime Minister

The PM has to be able to account for all of their policies and the actions of their government. To do this they rely on Government Ministers to keep them fully briefed on what is happening within government. Minister and Civil Servants need to be conscious that any of their decisions might be questioned in the public forum of PMQs. As such, it is an important mechanism for allowing the Prime Minister to have not just the ability but the reason to involve themselves in as much of the government as possible.

3. It forces the development of policy

PMQs prevents the government from becoming complacent. They cannot rely on their current policies and must look to progress. If they don’t, they will be consistently shown up in PMQs by the opposition.

4. It allows the PM and Leader of the Opposition to manage their party

PMQs is a chance to show that you have the support of your party. The strength of the cheering for you and the heckling of your opponent is a clear indication of the morale of the party. After PMQs, MPs will be challenged by ‘The Lobby’ (the term for Parliament’s journalists) and their strength which they support their leader will be taken as a clear indicator of how much support they have.

5. It allows both the PM and Leader of the Opposition to advertise themselves to the electorate

PMQs each week is essentially an audition for the job of Prime Minister. The current PM is auditioning to keep their job, while the Leader is aiming to show the PM is not up to the task and that they would be better suited to it. This is particularly important for the Leader of the Opposition. The PM has plenty of opportunities to play the part of spokesman and advertise themselves to the electorate. The Leader of the Opposition does not have the same platform, making strong performances at PMQs an important driver in people’s perceptions of their ability.

Ultimately, PMQs is important. It performs a number of important functions and seeing beyond the ‘punch and judy’ atmosphere is essential to understanding the role it really plays in the political system.

This article was written following reading Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions. A full review can be read here:

Book Review

It is an excellent book and well worth reading.


2 thoughts on “PMQs – Is it just parliamentary theatre?

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