Prime Minister's Questions

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A wide shot of Prime Ministers Questions in 2012, showing the House of Commons packed with members

Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs, officially known as Questions to the Prime Minister, while colloquially known as Prime Minister's Question Time) 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 answers questions from members of Parliament (MPs).[1]

The Institute for Government has described PMQs as 'the most distinctive and internationally famous feature of British politics.'[2]

History[edit]

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.[3] 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 Ewart Gladstone, so he could come to the Commons later in the day. In 1953, when Winston Churchill (in his late 70s at the time) was prime minister, it was agreed that questions would be submitted on fixed days (Tuesdays and Thursdays).[3]

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 on 4 August.[4] The very first question was delivered by Labour MP Fenner Brockway, asking to which minister the UK ambassador to South Africa would be responsible.[5] 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?"[5] PMQs were made permanent in the following parliamentary session, with the first of these on 24 October 1961.[3][6][7]

The style and culture of PMQs has changed gradually over time. According to former 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.[3][8] 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.[3]

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.[3] 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 as opposed to one question beforehand. The first PMQs to use this new format took place on 21 May 1997.[9]

During the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010 to 2015, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a member of the government, did not ask questions during PMQs.[10] 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 party such as the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.

Practice[edit]

The Order Paper for Wednesday, 24 June 2009.

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 Democrats from 1988 to 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 [Madam] Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister "if he [she] will list his [her] 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 this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.[11]

In the Prime Minister's absence the Deputy Prime Minister (or First Secretary of State) usually replies:

I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister who is [insert reason for PM's absence].[12]

The reason for such a question is that, historically, the prime minister may be questioned only as to those matters for which they are directly responsible. Such matters are relatively few in number, because many substantive matters are handled by the other Cabinet ministers. 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.[13]

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 that 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.[14]

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.[14]

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 as a mark of respect following the unexpected death of Opposition leader David Cameron's son. Prime Minister's Questions was also suspended following the sudden death of the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, in 1994.[15]

PMQs has been filmed since 1989, and has been broadcast live since 1990.[16] It is broadcast live in the United Kingdom on the BBC Two and BBC Parliament television channels. It is also broadcast outside the United Kingdom, most notably on the international pay television network BBC World News and the US cable network C-SPAN.[17]

Absence of the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition[edit]

If the prime minister is away on official business when PMQs is scheduled, their role is usually filled by the deputy prime minister or first secretary of state.[18] If these offices are 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).[19] In the absence of the Leader of the Opposition, the opposition questions will be usually led by the next highest-ranking member of the Shadow Cabinet. From 1992 to 2020, a convention was in place that if either the prime minister or the leader of the Opposition is absent, the other faction would nominate someone to stand, meaning that both sides were stood in for.[18] This precedent was broken at Keir Starmer's first PMQs as leader of the Opposition, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalised due to illness with COVID-19. Dominic Raab, as first secretary of state, stood in for Johnson.[20] On 16 September 2020, a member of Starmer's household displayed COVID-19 symptoms, meaning he was self-isolating. As a result, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Shadow First Secretary of State Angela Rayner stood in for him putting questions to Johnson. Before 1992, the replacement would often question the prime minister or vice versa. For example, Roy Hattersley, the deputy leader of the Labour Party between 1983 and 1992, stood in for Neil Kinnock facing Margaret Thatcher on 38 occasions between February 1984 and July 1990.[21]

Boris Johnson also became the first prime minister to answer PMQs outside the chamber virtually after having been told to isolate after meeting with Lee Anderson who later tested positive for COVID-19.[22][23] Keir Starmer became the first leader of the opposition to ask questions remotely a month later after a member of his office staff contracted COVID-19.[24]

During the Cameron–Clegg coalition, Nick Clegg answered 15 PMQs and William Hague twice, all opposite Harriet Harman.[a][25] Harman had previously in her capacity as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and de facto Deputy Prime Minister, answered PMQs for Gordon Brown on 10 occasions between April 2008 and March 2010, all opposite William Hague. During the Second Cameron ministry, George Osborne answered three times, opposite Angela Eagle.[b][26] In the Second May ministry, Damian Green replied twice,[c] opposite Emily Thornberry, while David Lidington did so six times, opposite Thornberry and Rebecca Long-Bailey.[d][26] On 2 October 2019, Diane Abbott became the first Black MP to stand for PMQs and ask the six main questions when she challenged the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, in his capacity as first secretary of state.

Leaders at the dispatch box since 1961[edit]

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
George Brown 1963
Harold Wilson 1963
Alec Douglas-Home 1963–1964
Harold Wilson Alec Douglas-Home 1964–1965
Edward Heath 1965–1970
Edward Heath Harold Wilson 1970–1974
Harold Wilson Edward Heath 1974–1975
Margaret Thatcher 1975–1976
James Callaghan 1976–1979
Margaret Thatcher James Callaghan 1979–1980
Michael Foot 1980–1983
Neil Kinnock 1983–1990
John Major 1990–1992
John Smith 1992–1994
Margaret Beckett 1994
Tony Blair 1994–1997
Tony Blair John Major Paddy Ashdown 1997
William Hague 1997–1999
Charles Kennedy 1999–2001
Iain Duncan Smith 2001–2003
Michael Howard 2003–2005
David Cameron 2005–2006
Menzies Campbell 2006–2007
Gordon Brown 2007
Vince Cable 2007
Nick Clegg 2007–2010
David Cameron Harriet Harman None 2010
Ed Miliband 2010–2015
Harriet Harman Angus Robertson 2015
Jeremy Corbyn 2015–2016
Theresa May 2016–2017
Ian Blackford 2017–2019
Boris Johnson 2019–2020
Keir Starmer 2020–2022
Liz Truss 2022
Rishi Sunak 2022
Stephen Flynn 2022–present

Media coverage[edit]

Broadcast of David Cameron answering Prime Minister's Questions in 2012

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister's Questions is broadcast live via cameras within the Press Gallery inside the House of Commons on domestic national television channels BBC Two, the BBC News Channel, BBC Parliament and Sky News. It is also broadcast live on the national radio station BBC Radio 5 Live.[citation needed]

In the United States, Prime Minister's Questions is broadcast live on the national C-SPAN television network. C-SPAN also has an archive of Prime Minister's Questions coverage going back to 1989 when it was first televised. There is no live radio coverage of Prime Minister's Questions in that country.[citation needed]

Prime Minister's Questions has been spoofed on the American late-night television sketch comedy Saturday Night Live.[27]

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."[28]

Worldwide, Prime Minister's Questions is broadcast live via the official British Parliament website parliamentlive.tv, in visual and audio form.[citation needed]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ 20 June 2012 and 10 September 2014
  2. ^ 17 June 2015, 9 December 2015 and 25 May 2016
  3. ^ 12 July 2017 and 29 November 2017
  4. ^ 7 December 2016, 31 January 2018, 11 July 2018, 6 February 2019, 24 April 2019 and 5 June 2019

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Prime Minister's Questions". BBC News Online. 24 January 2006. Archived from the original on 8 September 2007. Retrieved 28 June 2007.
  2. ^ "StackPath". www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk. Archived from the original on 24 January 2022. Retrieved 19 January 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Bercow, John (6 July 2010). "Speech: New Parliament, New Opportunity". House of Commons Library. parliament.uk. Archived from the original on 14 July 2010. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
  4. ^ "Questions to the Prime Minister". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. 18 July 1961. col. 1052–1052. Archived 11 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ a b "Ambassador to South Africa". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. 18 July 1961. col. 1052–1053. Archived 25 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ "Questions to the Prime Minister". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. 24 October 1961. col. 740–747. Archived 12 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "What are Prime Minister's Questions?". number10.gov.uk. 21 January 2004. Archived from the original on 9 September 2008. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
  8. ^ Lloyd, Selwyn (1976). Mr. Speaker, sir. ISBN 978-0-224-01318-5.
  9. ^ "Questions to the Prime Minister". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). United Kingdom: House of Commons. 21 May 1997. col. 702–712. Archived 26 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "What is Prime minister's questions?". BBC News. 2 June 2010. Archived from the original on 14 February 2009. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
  11. ^ Biffen, John (1989) Inside the House of Commons: Behind the Scenes at Westminster. London: Grafton.
  12. ^ Biffen, John (1989) Inside the House of Commons: Behind the Scenes at Westminster. London: Grafton.
  13. ^ Biffen, John (1989) Inside the House of Commons: Behind the Scenes at Westminster. London: Grafton. ISBN 0246134798
  14. ^ a b "Question Time". House of Commons Library. parliament.uk. Archived from the original on 9 June 2010. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
  15. ^ Grice, Andrew (26 February 2009). "Politics put on hold as House mourns death of leader's son". The Independent. Archived from the original on 25 September 2011. Retrieved 26 February 2009.
  16. ^ "Camera crews allowed into Prime Minister's Questions". BBC News Online. 14 May 2014. Archived from the original on 8 November 2014. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  17. ^ "British House of Commons Prime Minister's Questions". C-SPAN. Archived from the original on 4 February 2014. Retrieved 25 July 2010.
  18. ^ a b "Prime Minister's Questions: 12 March 2014". UK Parliament. Archived from the original on 14 June 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2015.
  19. ^ Williamson, David (10 September 2014). "In a PMQs without the PM, William Hague and Harriet Harman join forces to love-bomb the Scots". Wales Online. Archived from the original on 20 June 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2015.
  20. ^ "Prime Minister's Questions 22nd April 2020". Parliament.uk. Archived from the original on 26 April 2020. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
  21. ^ "Mr Roy Hattersley (Hansard)". Archived from the original on 30 September 2019. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  22. ^ "Covid-19: Boris Johnson and six Tory MPs self-isolating after No 10 meeting". BBC News. 9 December 2020. Archived from the original on 19 November 2020. Retrieved 19 November 2020.
  23. ^ Allegretti, Aubrey (18 November 2020). "Self-isolating Boris Johnson not held back by virtual PMQs - but still gets told off". Sky News. Archived from the original on 18 November 2020. Retrieved 19 November 2020.
  24. ^ "Keir Starmer to take part in PMQs virtually as he self-isolatesg". The New European. 8 December 2020.
  25. ^ "Deputy Prime Minister's Questions". BBC. Archived from the original on 2 November 2018. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  26. ^ a b UK Parliament. YouTube. Archived from the original on 17 November 2020. Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  27. ^ "Prime Minister's Questions". The SNL Archives. Archived from the original on 29 January 2015. Retrieved 25 July 2010., describing episodes of 22 March 1997 and 2 May 1998.
  28. ^ "George H. W. Bush on PMQs", C-SPAN, YouTube, 20 December 1991, archived from the original on 5 November 2020

Further reading[edit]

  • Ayesha Hazarika, Tom Hamilton (2018): Punch and Judy Politics. An Insiders´ Guide to Prime Minister´s Questions. Bitback Publishing. ISBN 978-1785901843

External links[edit]