Prime Minister’s Questions

In November 2013, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, expressed concern about the behavior of MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), stating that it was damaging Parliament's reputation. He remarked that PMQs seemed more like a blood sport than a serious inquiry, which many people would prefer. Bercow had previously criticized MPs' conduct during PMQs in 2010, describing the sessions as a series of attacks, soundbites, and planned questions. He emphasized the significance of PMQs as it serves as the primary public-facing activity of the House of Commons, influencing how the public perceives Parliament. Bercow highlighted that media coverage of PMQs overshadowed other parliamentary proceedings throughout the week, underscoring the importance of maintaining decorum during these exchanges. Recent instances have seen the Speaker intervening to address MPs' behavior during PMQs, with a notable incident occurring in May 2012 when Bercow instructed the Prime Minister to retract derogatory remarks made about the shadow chancellor. The format of PMQs has evolved, with Tony Blair shifting it from two 15-minute sessions to a single 30-minute session every Wednesday, suggesting that further reforms could be feasible.

The leader of the opposition can inflict serious damage on a government with memorable soundbites. Starmer’s. ‘Why is he still here?’ question of Boris Johnson compounded the pressure upon the then Prime Minister over Partygate and revelations of lockdown parties at number 10. In the 1990s, Blair quipped of John Major that he was 'in office but not in power' and that ‘ I lead my party, he follows his’. And Blair's ‘Weak, weak weak’ assertion rubbed salt into the wounds of a Prime Minister John Major struggling to hold his party together. Gordon Brown never quite recovered from the comparison to Mr Bean.

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. Governments often ask their own backbenchers, to ask planted questions which are easy for the Prime Minister, uh, to bat away. Government whips strongly encourage repetitious and memorable soundbites from the government's backbenchers, allowing the Prime Minister the chance to answer in an easy way and prepare them for campaigns.

In September 2023, after the Labour run Birmingham council declared itself bankrupt, no one was surprised to hear planted partisan and anti Labour questions asked by Tory MPs sitting behind Rishi Sunak, attempting to give Sunak an easy attack line in a Prime Minister's questions that were supposed to be dominated by the uncomfortable subject of unsafe RAAC concrete in school roofs.

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 of July 1961, and since then, critics argue that its tone has significantly changed, becoming more theatrical and raucous. A significant 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". 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 became 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". 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? 

The study "Questions to the Prime Minister: A Comparative Study of PMQs from Thatcher to Cameron," published in 2012 in the journal Parliamentary Affairs, aimed to analyze the changes in Prime Minister's Questions from the era of Margaret Thatcher to the current coalition government. It revealed a shift towards increased dominance by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition during these sessions, leaving less time for other Members of Parliament. Margaret Thatcher's share of words spoken during sessions rose from 45% in 1979 to 60% for David Cameron, while the Leader of the Opposition saw an increase from 4.1% to 11.5%. This indicates a decrease in time allocated to backbench MPs, with a diminishing portion going to the opposition. The study noted that under Thatcher, questions from opposition backbench MPs made up 28% of the words spoken, whereas this decreased to 14-16% during Gordon Brown's tenure. Despite the theatrical nature of PMQs, the study highlighted the limited opportunity for opposition MPs to question the Prime Minister. Moreover, the study examined the 'rowdiness' of PMQs by comparing the frequency of interruptions per session and the Speaker's interventions. It observed a significant rise in interruptions, from one per session under Thatcher to over six during Brown and Cameron's terms. Speaker interventions also increased, with a potential influence from individual Speaker personalities. Additionally, the study found variations in the quality of answers given by different Prime Ministers. Thatcher and Brown tended to provide more non-replies and fewer proper answers, while John Major and David Cameron were noted for offering more comprehensive responses. On average, Tony Blair was seen as consistently providing satisfactory answers during his PMQ sessions. The study acknowledged challenges in assessing question quality and answer accuracy over the years but suggested that more sensible questioning and honest answers would enhance the effectiveness of these weekly sessions.