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, currently held as a single session every Wednesday at noon when the House of Commons is sitting, during which the Prime Minister spends around half an hour answering questions from Members of Parliament (MPs).
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). The very first question was delivered by Labour MP Fenner Brockway, asking to which Minister the UK Ambassador to South Africa would be responsible. In response to the Prime Minister's answer, Brockway said "May I express our appreciation of this new arrangement for answering Questions and the hope that it will be convenient for the Prime Minister as well as useful to the House?" PMQs were made permanent in the following parliamentary 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 began asking more questions than his predecessors. His successor, John Smith, established the precedent of always taking 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 on Wednesdays, initially at 3 p.m. but since 2003 at noon. 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 in the Commons was given two questions. The first PMQs to use this new format took place on 21 May 1997. Speaker John Bercow has routinely allowed the session to overrun its allotted 30 minutes by 10 to 20 minutes to allow more questions, though without objection from either front bench.
During the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010–2015, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a member of the government, did not ask questions during PMQs. Instead the leader of the second largest parliamentary opposition party at the time, Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), usually asked a single question later in the session followed by at least one MP from another smaller party such as the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.
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. The leader of the third largest parliamentary party (the Liberal Party until 1988, the Liberal Democrats from 1988–2010 and the Scottish National Party from 2015) would then ask two questions.
The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number one, Mr. Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister "if s/he will list his/her engagements for the day". The Prime Minister usually replies:
The reason for such a question is that, historically, the Prime Minister may be questioned only as to those matters for which he or she is directly responsible. Such matters are relatively few in number, because many substantive matters are handled by the other Ministers in the Cabinet. By requiring the Prime Minister to list his or her engagements, the members may then inquire whether the Prime Minister ought to be engaged in some other activity or be taking some other action.
Before listing the day's 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. This practice was 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.
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.
PMQs has been filmed since 1989, and have been broadcast live since 1990. They are broadcast live in the United Kingdom on the BBC Two and BBC Parliament TV channels. It is also broadcast outside the United Kingdom, most notably on the US cable network C-SPAN and has been spoofed on the American late-night television sketch comedy Saturday Night Live. In a C-SPAN interview in 1991, shortly after the network started to broadcast PMQs, US President George H. W. Bush said, "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."
Deputy Prime Minister's Questions
If the Prime Minister is away on official business when PMQs is scheduled, their role is usually filled by the Deputy Prime Minister. If this office is not occupied or the Deputy Prime Minister is not available, the next most senior member of the Cabinet will receive questions (such as the First Secretary of State or the Deputy Leader of the government party). In the absence of the Leader of the Opposition, the opposition questions will be led by the deputy leader of the opposition. Since opposite numbers usually coordinate absences, the PM's deputy and the Leader of the Opposition's usually face each other rather than the opposite leader.
Concerns over noise levels
On 17 April 2014, Speaker Bercow told the BBC that the "histrionics and cacophony of noise" in PMQs were so bad that a number of female MPs had told him they would stop attending. Bercow described it as being a "real problem" and that "A number of seasoned parliamentarians, who are not shrinking violets, not delicate creatures at all, are saying, 'This is so bad that I am not going to take part, I am not going to come along, I feel embarrassed by it.'" Since becoming Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn has attempted to reform PMQs by using questions submitted by members of the public and attempting to reduce the theatrical element. However, YouGov polling of viewers suggests that Corbyn has failed in his attempts to reform PMQs, with 77% of respondents revealing that it consists of 'too much point scoring'. This is an increase of 31% since Corbyn became leader of the opposition in 2015.
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, as well as the secondary opposition leader since 1997 (usually the leader of third largest party within the House of Commons):
|Party key||Conservative||Liberal Democrats|
|Labour||Scottish National Party|
|Prime Minister||Leader of the Opposition||Secondary Opposition Leader||Years|
|Harold Macmillan||Hugh Gaitskell||None||1961–1963|
|Harold Wilson||Alec Douglas-Home||1964–1965|
|Edward Heath||Harold Wilson||1970–1974|
|Harold Wilson||Edward Heath||1974–1975|
|Margaret Thatcher||James Callaghan||1979–1980|
|Tony Blair||John Major||Paddy Ashdown||1997|
|Iain Duncan Smith||2001–2003|
|David Cameron||Harriet Harman||None||2010|
|Harriet Harman||Angus Robertson||2015|
PMQs is widely seen as an important part of British political culture. Due to the 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 by members of the British public.
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