“It’s Questions to the Prime Minister, not a Punch and Judy show”
Prime Minister’s Question Time - which takes place every Wednesday at 12pm - was originally introduced as a way to scrutinise the Prime Minister and the government.
Feared by politicians and loved by the media, PMQs attracts high viewing figures from the public, with sections being reused as sound bites for the radio and clips that are broadcast on the news.
Criticism of the weekly event is not a new development – but has resurfaced recently in an article published by The Times. It is often seen as the thirty minutes a week where MPs permit themselves to behave like children, with endless cat-calling and heckling which achieves very little in terms of the original reason for the sessions – scrutinising the Prime Minister and holding the Government to account.
As a political monitoring executive at PLMR, it is my job to watch PMQs every week, primarily looking out for any issues of relevance to our clients. It is understandable that the public’s view of PMQs is that it is nothing more than a shouting match. Clips which are used by the media in nightly news reports are often particularly ‘passionate’ extracts. However, it could be contrived that there are other reasons that we should pay attention to PMQS.
Taking yesterday’s PMQs as an example, if I were to do no other political monitoring all week, I would still be able to gain a lot of information from this half hour viewing.
I will know what the key issues of the moment are for the opposition – Ed Miliband used three of his six questions to ask about Syria and the UN programme and the remaining three to talk about the cost of living for families.
“Will he open discussions with the UN about Britain making contributions to this programme?”
“He can’t be the solution to the cost of living crisis because he just doesn’t understand the problem (Ed Milliband, Leader of the Opposition)
Loyal Tory MPs will use a PMQ to hammer home the current party messaging.
“Does the PM agree that a resurge in the manufacturing sector is part of this government’s long-term economic plan?” (Mark Pawsey MP, Conservative, Rugby)
On British business:
“Would the PM like to congratulate them on the new jobs and investment they have created and agree that this is yet another example of the success of British businesses and of our long-term economic plan?” (Jonathan Lord MP, Conservative, Woking)
On rural broadband:
“Will the government work with me to help deliver that remaining percent as part of our long-term economic plan?” (Simon Kirby MP, Conservative, Brighton & Kemptown)
I even know what or who is the butt of the jokes within the Westminster bubble that week – this week it was the UKIP councillor from Oxfordshire who blamed recent flooding on the government’s decision to legalise gay marriage.
“I am incredibly proud to represent a large gay community. Would my Right Honourable Friend agree with me that despite the views of some, that the weather in Brighton is nearly always very sunny?”
Besides this, PMQs can force the Government to answer on a subject they have perhaps been trying to shy away from, or just bring the topic to the fore.
On the long anticipated DEFRA Food Aid report:
“What is the Prime Minister afraid of and why doesn’t he publish now and be damned?” (Huw Irranca-Davies MP, Labour, Ogmore)
I attended an Open Lecture at the House of Commons on Wednesday 22nd January and questioned Nastascha Engel MP on her thoughts about PMQs. Natascha said that whilst she had been an MP for nine years and Chair of the Backbench Business committee since 2010, she still found just asking a question at PMQs “absolutely terrifying”. While it is possibly something which may become easier over time, there is no doubt that the ordeal must be ten times worse for the Prime Minister. The pressure is enormous, and the ability to take this pressure may affect our perceptions of a Prime Minister. If a party leader does not perform well at PMQs, are they really fit to be a leader? It could be argued that Gordon Brown, as someone who perhaps lacked the skills of a natural orator was adversely affected by PMQs, particularly when compared to David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
It was said that Margaret Thatcher used to spend hours per week preparing for them. Tony Blair famously hated them, and changed the format from two 15 minute sessions per week to one 30 minute session – perhaps so he could get it over and done with in one go. Former Special Adviser, Damian McBride recounts in his recent book of the mammoth task of getting newly appointed Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, ready for his first grilling. If the politicians themselves put this much effort into their preparations for the sessions, then this shows that they themselves appreciate the importance. Perhaps this is an indication that the public should too?
For the best scrutiny of the Prime Minister, we should look to the Liaison Committee – a group comprising of all the Chairs of Select Committees – who take evidence from the Prime Minister three times a year. In the meantime, we should see the other benefits that PMQs brings, and enjoy the piece of theatre that it is.