I have just recorded an interview for BBC Radio 4 for a programme, which will be broadcast later this year, on Prime Minister’s Question Time. Prime Minister’s Question Time – a dedicated slot when the PM answers questions – is relatively young in parliamentary terms. Indeed, in a couple of weeks, it will reach its fiftieth birthday.
Since its introduction in 1961, PMQT has seen a number of changes. It has become more adversarial. MPs after a few years started using ‘open’ questions, a means of avoiding transfer to a departmental Question Time as well as leaving the PM in the dark as to what the supplementary question would cover. The Leader of the Opposition became more involved, leading to the session being seen as a gladitorial combat between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. (The Leader of the Opposition usually came off the worst.) In 1997, PMQT shifted from occupying two 15-minute slots, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to a 30-minute slot on a Wednesdays, a change introduced unilaterally by Tony Blair.
Prime Minister’s Question Time attracts media attention – it is highly televisual – and people watch it even though they dislike what they see. One survey once found that over 80% of those questioned thought that PMQT sounded like ‘feeding time at the zoo’. It does not necessarily contribute to a positive view of the House of Commons. It does, though, have its benefits. It forces the head of government to appear each week to answer questions from MPs in all parts of the House. It ensures that the PM is briefed on what is going on in Government and the issues that are concerning Members. As such, the prinipal benefit may come from the preparation for the session as much as from the session itself.
Apart from considering reforms to the format of PMQT, I was also asked what advice I would give to a Leader of the Opposition. Among the suggestions I made (which applies to any member at Question Time) is ‘keep it short’. A short question limits the time the minister has to think about the question and means the media cannot edit what you have said. The best supplementary question is ‘Why?’ However, expecting the Leader of the Opposition, or a Prime Minister, to keep comments short may be a tad optimistic.