Ministerial questions and Prime Minister's Questions

Prime Minister's Questions is one of the regular set-piece events of the parliamentary calendar. It is held once a week, at 12 p.m. for half an hour each Wednesday when the Commons is sitting. It attracts considerable attention in press and television reporting. Its defenders argue that it obliges the prime minister to engage with the opposition on a range of topics, and the intensive preparation that goes on inside Number 10 suggests that it is a significant event. Tony Blair later described it as 'the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience' in his political life.

. Sir Anthony Seldon, biographer of all prime ministers from John Major to Theresa May, reveals that PMQs ‘take hours of preparation, and many prime ministers find them to be the most stressful part of the entire job’. At stake is the credibility and authority of the prime minister and invaluable opportunities for the leader of the opposition to dictate the political agenda. ‘If the PM fails to impress,’ asserts Seldon, ‘as Brown and May did, morale on their own side declines, while the confidence of the opposition grows.’

Critics, however, point to the 'gladiatorial' nature of the encounter between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, which tends to reveal more about their respective personalities than it does about the detail of government policy. Clashes between David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, for example, were notorious for their displays of prime ministerial scorn, with Cameron on one occasion attacking his opposite number's choice of suit. There is considerable stage management, with MPs on the government side deliberately asking 'planted' questions to present the prime minister in a good light. In 2012, for example, it was revealed that Cameron's parliamentary private secretary, Desmond Swayne, had orchestrated heckling of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and had asked Conservative MPs to create a 'protective wall of sound' around the prime minister when he faced opposition criticism.

In 2021 the Journal of Legislative Studies published a wide-ranging study on ‘the effect of Prime Minister’s Questions on citizen efficacy and trust in parliament’. The study described PMQs as ‘the most viewed and commented upon part of the parliamentary week’ but one that ‘attracts strong criticism as a noisy charade promoting a poor image of politics’. It also revealed that ‘contrary to its negative reputation, PMQs does not adversely affect most citizens’ perceptions,’ who see in the robustness of the debate and the directness of the parliamentary process an appropriate symbol of healthy parliamentary democracy.

Better scrutiny of government activity is arguably provided by the rota on which ministers answer questions about their own departments. This usually entails more detailed questioning and ministers are given notice of oral questions so that they can prepare with the assistance of civil servants. MPs can also submit written questions that are answered by civil servants. This allows opposition MPs to inform themselves about government policy, and individual members can raise issues of interest to their constituents. This is of course much less well-known than the highly theatrical verbal duels between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

Is Prime Minister’s Questions little more than a “litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions”?