Prime minister's questions
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Prime Minister's Questions (often abbreviated to PMQs and officially known as Questions to the Prime Minister) is a constitutional convention in the United Kingdom held as a single session every Wednesday when the House of Commons is sitting, during which the Prime Minister spends around half an hour answering questions from Members of Parliament (MPs).
PMQs forms an important part of British political culture. Due to the natural drama of the sessions, it is among the best-known parliamentary business in the country, with tickets to the Strangers' Gallery (the public gallery) for Wednesdays being the most sought-after parliamentary tickets.
Although prime ministers have answered questions in parliament for centuries, until the 1880s questions to the prime minister were treated the same as questions to other Ministers of the Crown: asked without notice, on days when ministers were available in whatever order MPs rose to ask them. In 1881, fixed time-limits for questions were introduced and questions to the prime minister were moved to the last slot of the day as a courtesy to the 72-year-old prime minister at the time, William Gladstone, so he could come to the Commons later in the day. In 1953, when Winston Churchill was prime minister, it was agreed that questions would be submitted on fixed days (Tuesdays and Thursdays).
A Procedure Committee report in 1959 recommended that questions to the prime minister be taken in two fixed-period, 15-minute slots on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The recommendations were put into practice under Harold Macmillan during a successful experiment from 18 July 1961 to the end of the session (4 August), and the sessions were made permanent in the following session, with the first of these on 24 October 1961.
The style and culture of PMQs has changed gradually over time. According to Speaker Selwyn Lloyd, the now famous disorderly behaviour of MPs during PMQs first arose as a result of the personal animosity between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath; before this PMQs had been lively but comparatively civilised. In the past, prime ministers often opted to transfer questions to the relevant minister, and Leaders of the Opposition did not always take their allocated number of questions in some sessions, sometimes opting not to ask any questions at all. This changed during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when the prime minister chose not to transfer any questions to other members of her Cabinet, and Labour leader Neil Kinnock would always take his full allocation of questions.
One of Tony Blair's first acts as prime minister was to replace the two 15-minute sessions with a single 30-minute session at noon on Wednesdays. The allocated number of questions in each session for the Leader of the Opposition was doubled from three to six, and the leader of the third-largest party (which was the Liberal Party until 1988, after which it was the Liberal Democrats) was given two questions. The first PMQs to use this new format took place on 21 May 1997.
In the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government ruling after a hung parliament in 2010, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a member of the government, did not ask questions during PMQs.
Backbench MPs wishing to ask a question must enter their names on the Order Paper. The names of entrants are then shuffled in a ballot to produce a random order in which they will be called by the Speaker. The Speaker will then call on MPs to put their questions, usually in an alternating fashion: one MP from the government benches is followed by one from the opposition benches. MPs who are not selected may be chosen to ask a supplementary question if they "catch the eye" of the Speaker, which is done by standing and sitting immediately before the prime minister gives an answer.
The Leader of the Opposition usually asks six questions at PMQs, either as a whole block or in two separate groups of three. If the first question is asked by a government backbencher, the Leader of the Opposition is the second MP to ask questions. If the first question is asked by an opposition MP, this will be followed by a question from a government MP and then by the questions from the Leader of the Opposition. Before the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in May 2010, the leader of the third largest parliamentary party (usually the leader of the Liberal Party, or Liberal Democrats) would then ask two questions. However, because the incumbent leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, is a member of the government, he no longer asks questions at PMQs. The leader of the second largest parliamentary opposition party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Nigel Dodds, usually asks one question later in the session: if he does not, at least one MP from either the DUP or another smaller party such as the Scottish National Party will ask a question.
The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number one, Mr. Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister "if he will list his engagements for the day". The Prime Minister usually replies:
|“||This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.||”|
Before listing his engagements, the Prime Minister sometimes extends condolences or offers congratulations after significant events. During the Iraq War, Tony Blair introduced the practice of naming any British military personnel who had been killed in service since the last time he addressed the House. The practice has been continued by Blair's successors as prime minister. After this, the MP may ask a supplementary question about any subject which might occupy the Prime Minister's time. Most MPs table the same engagements question and so after it has been asked for the first time, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled question, meaning that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked of him.
Occasionally the first question tabled is on a specific area of policy, not the engagements question. This, though, is quite rare as it would allow the Prime Minister to prepare a response in advance; the non-descript question allows some chance of catching him or her out with an unexpected supplementary question.
At times of national or personal tragedy or crisis, PMQs have been temporarily suspended. The last such suspension occurred on 25 February 2009 when the Speaker, at the request of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suspended the Commons until 12:30 p.m. as a mark of respect following the unexpected death of Opposition leader David Cameron's son. Prime Minister's Questions was also suspended after the sudden death of the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, in 1994.
If the Prime Minister is away on official business when PMQs is scheduled, the next most senior member of the Cabinet takes the questions. This duty usually falls to the Deputy Prime Minister or, if the office is not occupied, the Deputy Leader of the party in government or the First Secretary of State. Furthermore, in the absence of the Prime Minister, the opposition questions will be led by the deputy leader of the opposition.
PMQs is broadcast live in the United Kingdom on the BBC Two and BBC Parliament TV channel. It is also broadcast outside the United Kingdom, most notably on the U.S. cable channel C-SPAN (the segment is broadcast live on C-SPAN2 on Wednesday at 7 a.m. ET, and re-run on C-SPAN on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) and has been spoofed on the American late-night television sketch comedy Saturday Night Live.
Leaders at the dispatch box since 1961
The most high-profile contributors at Prime Minister's questions are the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who speak opposite each other at the dispatch box. Regular, fixed sessions have taken place since 1961, and the list below outlines the prime ministers since 1961 and Opposition party leaders they faced across the floor of the House of Commons:
|Prime Minister||Leader of the Opposition||Years|
|Harold Macmillan||Hugh Gaitskell||1961–1963|
|Alec Douglas-Home||Harold Wilson||1963–1964|
|Harold Wilson||Alec Douglas-Home||1964–1965|
|Edward Heath||Harold Wilson||1970–1974|
|Harold Wilson||Edward Heath||1974–1975|
|James Callaghan||Margaret Thatcher||1976–1979|
|Margaret Thatcher||James Callaghan||1979–1980|
|John Major||Neil Kinnock||1990–1992|
|Tony Blair||John Major||1997|
|Iain Duncan Smith||2001–2003|
|Gordon Brown||David Cameron||2007–2010|
|David Cameron||Harriet Harman||2010|
Deputy Prime Minister's Questions
Every fourth Tuesday of the month and in the absence of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister takes his own questions (DPMQs). The deputy leader of the Opposition is allowed three questions. The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number one, Mr. Speaker", is usually to ask the Deputy Prime Minister "if he will list the government's plans for the future". The format is the same as PMQs.
Deputy Leaders at the dispatch box since 2010
|Deputy Prime Minister||Deputy Leader of the Opposition||Years|
|Nick Clegg||Jack Straw||2010|
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- "Nick Clegg Will Hold Monthly Deputy Prime Minister's Questions Sessions". News.sky.com. Retrieved 28 May 2011.
- "Prime Minister's Questions". Parliament's website. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
- "Archive of videos and transcripts of PMQs". website of 10 Downing Street. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
- "Audio podcast of PMQs". The Guardian (London). 7 February 2008. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
- BBC documentary about PMQs (RealPlayer / Windows Media Player )
- 50 years of PMQs in The Independent, 17 July 2011]