Prime Minister’s Questions at 60

Prime Minister’s Questions, like much of the British political system, evolved gradually over time. Before the 1880s, questions to the Prime Minister were treated no differently than questions to any other Minister, and could be asked at any time without notice. As a gesture to 72 year old William Gladstone, this was changed so that any questions to him would be placed at the end of the list to allow him to come in late. This meant that in practice they would rarely be asked. It was not until 1961 that PMQs was officially scheduled for two 15 minute sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This was later changed in 1997 to one half-hour session on Wednesdays.

At first, PMQs was a relatively boring affair. Prime Ministers could only be asked about subjects they were directly responsible for, which are few in number as they do not run their own Department. To get around this, MP’s took to asking the Prime Minister about their engagements for the day which they could then follow up with an unrelated supplementary question. This practice remains in place to this day, with Prime Ministers still providing an update on their engagements at the start of every session. In the early days, Prime Ministers also tended to pass on most questions to be answered by the relevant Minister. It was not until Margaret Thatcher’s time in office that it was established that the Prime Minister would answer all questions by themselves.

Today, PMQs is the main event in the Parliamentary week and is known for being a confrontational battle between both Leaders. It is the only Parliamentary event that is watched by voters in any real numbers, and it is usually said that they do not like what they see. Ipsos Mori found that 47% of voters felt that PMQs was too aggressive, 67% agreed there was too much political point scoring, and 33% said it puts them off politics. Yet they still watch. Several Leaders have come into office calling for a new kind of PMQs, but this is always soon abandoned when they realise the important morale boost their MPs receive when they see their Leader tearing into the other side. If they manage to land a particularly good blow, it may even feature on primetime news bulletins and no politician worth their salt will be able to resist that.

Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition who are good at PMQs will have the advantage in this regard. History shows that Leaders who are good at PMQs are more likely to win elections, with Thatcher, Blair and Cameron being known for their talent. Blair in particular was renowned for his skill, demolishing John Major (“weak, weak, weak”) and every Tory Leader who faced him. His replacement Gordon Brown would later struggle to follow his performances. However, just being good at PMQs is not enough in itself to win an election. William Hague learnt this the hard way, being dismissed by Blair with the observation that he had “good jokes, lousy judgement”.

President George H.W Bush famously said of PMQs that, “I count my blessings for the fact I don’t have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other”. However, PMQs actually brings with it many advantages for the Prime Minister. Since Prime Ministers can be asked anything, they must know everything. This provides a great opportunity for Prime Ministers to exert control over Whitehall, uncovering things which could potentially embarrass the Government that Ministers would rather be kept secret. Thatcher was known for criticising her European counterparts for being ignorant about their own Governments, whereas she prided herself on the knowledge granted to her by PMQs; “from some local hospital to a great international issue”.

PMQs is commonly said to be hated by voters, loved by journalists and feared by Prime Ministers. This is true to an extent (even Blair admitted PMQs terrified him), but it overlooks the importance of PMQs to the British political system and democracy more generally. At its heart, PMQs allows any MP to stand up and ask the Prime Minister a question about anything they want. MPs ensure that both the concerns of their constituents are heard at the very top and that the Prime Minister is kept informed about matters important to people from all across the country. Equally importantly, voters benefit from hearing directly from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. After 60 years, PMQs is here to stay. I say the UK is all the better for it.

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