All About Parliament
The History of PMQs
It has been over fifty years since Prime Minister’s Question Time was made a permanent event in the weekly schedule.
What is Prime Minister’s Questions?
They have varied the length of time, day and frequency of Question Time over the decades but in essence it remains an opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister.
In 1953 it was decided that the 79 year-old Sir Winston Churchill would answer questions only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Successive prime ministers continued the convention of answering questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
However, the fact that the Prime Minister only answered a few questions led to the Procedure Committee recommending in 1959 that 15 minutes should be allocated to the Prime Minister to answer questions. The recommendation was not implemented until July 1961.
On Tuesday 18 July 1961, Harold Macmillan answered questions for 15 minutes between 3.15pm and 3.30pm as an experiment.
The experiment was made permanent on Tuesday 24 October 1961. Prime ministers continued to answer questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays until 1997.
Read the historic text in Hansard from the first Prime Minister’s Questions 18 July 1961
In 1989 PMQs began to be televised alongside other proceedings. The first Prime Minister to face the cameras was Margaret Thatcher but she left office the next year.
Prime Minister Tony Blair changed the time in 1997 to Wednesdays at 3pm until 3.30pm.
PMQs was first broadcast live on the internet in 2002.
In 2003 the sittings of the House of Commons changed and so did PMQs. It became midday – 12.30pm each sitting Wednesday. Rt. Hon John Bercow, a champion for backbenchers, often let the session run over, sometimes by 15 minutes if he felt not enough questions got asked due to interruption and heckling.
In modern times, PMQs has on occasion been suspended. In 1994 following the sudden death of John Smith, Leader of the Opposition and in 2009 after the death of Prime Minister David Cameron’s son, Ivan.
What is PMQs for?
PMQs is still something journalists, hacks and the Westminster bubble like to pour over but really it has become a sensationalist test of presentation and style.
The level of scrutiny, especially if it is your first PMQs as a new leader, is intense. You will be assessed on your:
• speaking ability
• wit, or lack of
• questions you asked
• questions you should have asked
• clothes, hair, general appearance and demeanor
• body language
• colleagues next to you– were they interested and noisy?
• colleagues behind – were they too busy on their phones, and your
• ability to win the exchange.
Sadly, many of the questions are loaded to make the Government (of any party) look good. For example “Would the Prime Minister agree with me that the economy is booming?” Errr.. “Yes” is the utterly unsurprising answer from the PM.
Even sadder, is many of the answers are stock lines, usually blaming their predecessors and point scoring.
It is more a test of projecting confidence and a competition, usually won by the Conservatives, over whose backbenchers make the most noise.
Regardless, this piece of theatre sees the Chamber of the House of Commons packed week after week. It is also a big hit around the world and in America it is broadcast live on C-SPAN.
A new edge is added when the Prime Minister cannot attend PMQs. This happens rarely enough to keep it interesting.
It can be a test for these people too. You want to be good, but not better in style and wit. You want to be competent, but not create headlines for yourself that should be reserved for the PM.
Modern day examples have included George Osborne, seen as the heir to David Cameron before the EU Referendum Campaign of 2016, who’s outing was seen as a test for a future leader and Angela Eagle, who’s performance at a time when Jeremy Corbyn was struggling, led people to suggest she was better than him and could do a better job.
With PMQs like theatre it attracts visitors who like to watch from the public gallery. It is also a sought after ticket.
Many are surprised just how small the Chamber is and how close together the opposing benches are.
Notable visitors include Meryl Streep, who attended as part of her research into playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Singer Shakira, in London as UN Goodwill Ambassador to speak to Chancellor Gordon Brown, also appeared in the public gallery to watch PMQs as a guest of Labour MP Tom Watson.
What they’ve said about PMQs
Neil Kinnock – Labour leader, 1983-92
“PMQs is a cross between the ballet and a bear pit – the former because of the choreography, the latter because of the yelping and roaring. The face-to-face clashes can give useful vitality to democratic politics, and Ed Miliband’s calm against David Cameron’s nasty apoplexy is very effective. But the rumbustious atmosphere also has disadvantages: it conveys the impression of testosterone-driven politics (and is not, therefore, a faithful representation of the House of Commons), and it can deter those MPs who are serious, but not politically muscular, from making interventions.”
Tony Blair – Labour leader, 1994-2007 PM 1997-2007
“I became convinced that PMQs twice a week was an enormous amount of time for a debating tournament. Statements were very different and I made more of them than my predecessors. But once I changed it to once a week for half an hour, and then moved it to midday, not 3pm, it freed up an entire day and a half of time.”
William Hague – Conservative leader, 1997-2001
“I started against the apparently unstoppable Tony Blair in 1997. He had right-wing newspapers supporting him and people from the last Conservative government, which gave me quite a dilemma. For the next four years I found a mixture of hard-hitting questions and humour to be most effective. I didn’t always look forward to it, but I found that, with the cheers of your party behind you, you do enjoy being able to hold the Government to account.”
Charles Kennedy – Liberal Democrat leader, 1999-2006
“What may seem flat or drowned out in the chamber can come over as the sole, sane voice in the asylum to the real world outside watching on television. Iraq gave me my opportunity. We were asking the awkward questions of Tony Blair that the Tories could not. And the House wanted to hear his answers. At one stage I felt dispirited, until a senior cabinet minister approached me and encouraged me to persist. ‘You’re asking the questions half the Cabinet would love to ask – but can’t.'”
Michael Howard – Conservative leader, 2003-05
“Tony Blair was master of the art and usually got the better of me, although I did have my moments. During an exchange about educational opportunity, I reminded him that I was a grammar school boy and needed no lessons about giving those from unprivileged backgrounds the chance to make the most of their potential.”
Sir Menzies Campbell – Lib Dem leader, 2006-07
“Half an hour of the bear garden has become the thermometer for the whole political week. Was I alone in finding that half hour such exquisite torture? I was gratified to learn from Tony Blair and David Cameron that their emotions were exactly the same as mine. Since Thatcher, I don’t think any leader would not cheerfully abolish it if they could.”
Sir Vince Cable – Liberal Democrat deputy leader, 2006-10
“I was lucky to have rich material in the wake of the Northern Rock bank run and a Saudi Arabian royal visit. I sensed that people were groping for words to describe Gordon Brown’s sudden fall from all-dominating competence to fumbling inadequacy.”
David Cameron – Conservative leader, 2006-2016
“If you’re Prime Minister, it’s a great way to check what’s going on in each department. Believe me, come Wednesday morning, you want to know anything and everything. Let’s just say there are more fun things to be doing. It’s nerve-wracking walking into quite a hostile chamber, knowing you could be asked anything. But it can also be good fun. In fact, it kind of sums up British politics perfectly – a robust democracy with a sense of humour.”
Harriet Harman – Labour deputy leader
“You cannot hide. You have got to have the courage of your convictions. If you do not, PMQs will expose it. It is quite an extraordinary feeling because everybody is banked up in front of you, and banked up behind you – the sheer physical dimension of it makes it feel like a gladiatorial contest.”
Ed Miliband – Labour leader, 2010-2015
“It gives me the privilege of pressing David Cameron for direct answers on the issues people care about. The best and simplest piece of advice I’ve ever had on what I should ask came from my wife, Justine: she told me to ask the questions that people in the country want answering. It seemed like pretty good advice, so I try to follow that every week.”