Prime Minister’s Questions

In November 2013, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, claimed that the current behaviour of MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) was inflicting “reputation carnage” on Parliament. He argued that “Questions to the prime minister remains, in the view of many people, something closer to a blood sport than to the type of serious inquiry that they would favour”. This is not the first time that the Speaker has raised concerns about the conduct of MPs during PMQs. In 2010, he denounced the sessions as a “litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions” in a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, Bercow argued that this is a significant issue because PMQs acts as the “shop window” to the House of Commons, garnering most of the media coverage and therefore greatly shaping how the public thinks about the conduct within Parliament. He claimed “The media coverage of that thirty minute slot dominates all other proceedings in Parliament during the rest of the week. If the country comes to an adverse conclusion about the House because of what it witnesses in those exchanges, then the noble work of a dozen Select Committees will pale into insignificance by comparison.” On several recent occasions PMQs has drawn media attention after the Speaker has been forced to intervene to address the behavior of MPs. One high profile example was in May 2012, when Bercow ordered the Prime Minister to withdraw remarks he made after he called the shadow chancellor a “muttering idiot”. The format for PMQs has been changed in the recent past, suggesting that further reforms would be possible. Tony Blair changed the format from two separate questioning sessions of 15 minutes, to a single 30 minute session each Wednesday. In his leadership campaign, David Cameron pledged to bring an end to “Punch and Judy politics”, a reference to an old, comically violent, puppet show.

However, in 2008 Cameron was forced to concede that due to the “adversarial nature” and noise of PMQs “the quieter tone I had hoped we might have been able to have, the better discussion of politics at Prime Minister's Questions, doesn't work.'' The rowdiness of the chamber is not restricted to PMQs either. There was some criticism over the behaviour of many MPs during Ed Ball’s response to the government’s Autumn Statement in December 2013. The Shadow Chancellor had to shout the majority of his speech due to the roar of Conservative MPs who were yelling taunts such as “New Balls please” and “Taxi”, making it difficult to actually hear Ball’s speech. The Telegraph reported that most of the noise had come from what is referred to as the “Treasury Support Group”, a team of around 60 energetic MPs who together cause as much of a distraction as possible, to make life harder for the speaking opposition MPs.

Prime Minister’s Questions began in their current format on the 18th July 1961, and since then, critics argue that its tone has significantly changed, becoming more theatrical and raucous. A sigificant cause behind the change may well be the introduction of television cameras in 1989, and then live internet coverage in 2002. The opportunity for the public to watch the proceedings has increased the importance of creating an effective “soundbite” - a short, funny, and carefully planned attack line that can be played over and over on the evening news, or spread on social media. For better or worse, it is hard to argue that PMQs has become the main event of each week’s Parliamentary schedule. A report by the Procedure Committee in 1995 argued that PMQs "could no longer be held to pass the test that the purpose of a question is to obtain information or press for action".iv In other words, rather than being an opportunity for MPs to genuinely seek information from the prime minister, is had instead been reduced to an opportunity to score points and embarrass the opposition. As the individual in charge of controlling and maintaining order during PMQs, it is perhaps not surprising that the Speaker Bercow has emerged as such a firm critic of the weekly event. While he appreciates the importance of accountability and the opportunity for Parliament to so directly question the executive on behalf of the public, he “would like to see a somewhat more restrained and dignified discussion taking place”, to ensure that the quality of the scrutiny is at its best, and the process appears more respectable to the public. For one, Bercow would like the party whips to discipline their MPs and do what they can to stop the “"orchestrated barracking and constant unremitting cacophony".v However, such an opportunity to question the Prime Minister so directly and aggressively remains relatively unique as most other democracies around the world lack an equivalent event. The American President George Bush Senior once said “I count my blessings that I don't have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose to nose with the opposition.” Therefore it could be argued that while not always entirely civilised, PMQs is still a uniquely regular opportunity for the legislative branch to directly challenge the executive, and should therefore be protected from too much reform. Others have similarly argued that the theatrical nature of PMQs could actually good for Parliament, sparking greater public interest. Without the humorous quips, and carefully crafted attack lines, would it garner the same media coverage and would the public be less interested?

An investigation called Questions to the Prime Minister: A Comparative Study of PMQs from Thatcher to Cameron published in 2012 for the journal Parliamentary Affairs attempted to chart changes to Prime Minister’s Questions from the government of Margaret Thatcher to the current coalition. vi The study found that, over time, the sessions have become increasingly dominated by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, giving less time to other MPs. It found that whereas in 1979, Margaret Thatcher accounted for around 45% of the words spoken in a sessions, it has risen to 60% for David Cameron. For the leader of the opposition, their time has increased from 4.1% to 11.5%. These trends shows that less time is now given to backbench MPs, and the study found that, of this remaining time, increasingly less has been given to the opposition. Whereas questions from opposition backbench MPs accounted for 14-16% of the words spoken during Gordon Brown’s PMQ sessions, they accounted for 28% under Thatcher. This suggests that even if the theatrics were removed from PMQs, there remains an issue with how much of an opportunity the sessions are for opposition MPs to question the prime minister. The study also analysed the ‘rowdiness’ of PMQs, by comparing the number of interruptions per sessions, and the frequency with which the Speaker is required to intervene. The authors found that the frequency of interruptions has increased greatly, from around one interruption per session under Thatcher, to over six per session for Brown and Cameron. The number of interventions made by Speakers has also increased, although the authors note that this may be influenced by the particular personality of each Speaker. Finally, the study found that the quality of the answers given by each Prime Minister varies greatly from leader to leader. Thatcher and Brown gave the highest percentage of non-replies that avoided answering the question, as well as the lowest number of proper answers. In contrast, John Major and David Cameron were noted to have given a much greater number of full answers to questions, and far fewer non-replies. The study found that on average, it was Tony Blair who most consistently gave satisfactory answers during his PMQ sessions. However, the study noted that these conclusions overlook the fact that, at times, prime ministers can be asked particularly unhelpful and unanswerable questions and while Brown appears to have dodged the questions during his time as prime minister, he was actually asked more unanswerable questions than helpful ones. So while it is harder to pick out a trend in the quality of the questioning and answers given during PMQs over the last few decades, it does appear possible to conclude that the weekly sessions would benefit from more sensible questioning, and more honest answers.