The changing nature of PMQs

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.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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9 Responses to The changing nature of PMQs

  1. ladytizzy says:

    Your point on the PM needing to swot up on what Ministers are doing in his name is well made and, um, pertinent.

    The robust exchanges in PMQs are nowhere near as maddening as are the many planted (thus pointless) questions. However, if it is absurd to expect actual answers (and it is) perhaps Leaders of the Opposition can stop feeling duty-bound to remind the audience that ‘they ask the questions, PMs answer them’.

    On brevity, I remember the moment when Mr ‘Bambi’ Blair got his first pair of long trousers, by giving the shortest possible answer to Mr Hague, the (then) Leader of the Opposition: “No”, he said. Devastating.

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Short questions and answers are beneficial, but once one side starts making a statement, the other side tends to follow. There has been something of a rachet effect over the years and it is always difficult to de-ratchet what has happened. Not everyone realises that often less is more.

  2. Frank W. Summers III says:

    For what its worth I have often watched PMQT and often seen feeding time at a variety of zoos and have never been confused as to which was which. I think balance is both impotant and avoided in most polities people tend to accentuate their strengths rather than balance themby mitigating their weaknesses. Britain needs PMQT more than any messy country with a week civil service, majoritarain rather than FPTP polls, and a less formal Head of State. It is true that it will never be the best thing done but it is among the most necessary. The better insulated the house the more it needs airing…

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frsnk W. Summers III: It was the noise rather than the appearance that was being compared! This was especially apparent when sound broadcasting began and all one could do was listen to – but not see – the proceedings. What listeners got for a good part of the time was a sheer cacophony of shouting and MPs’ emitting their elongated ‘hear, hears’. It is certainly better to have it than not have it. It is extremely valuable to have the head of government appear each week to face questioning from Members.

  3. Craig Prescott says:

    I seem to remember a suggestion (by Sir George Young i think), that PMQ’s should be moved to the evening, perhaps 7pm, to attract a greater television audience. I wondered what you thought about that idea? I don’t think that Blair would have liked waiting all day for it to be over, in his book he says he hated Wednesday mornings as he waited for the clock to strike 12.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Craig Prescott: I tend to favour a return to twice-weekly PMQs. I am less fussed about timing, but there may a case for taking it later in the day. I doubt if the press would be keen on a 7.00 p.m. session, as the deadline for sketchwriters and the like is, I gather, usually 6.00 p.m.

  4. Len says:

    I find it interesting to compare PMQT to the systems which have evolved in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where they seem to have retained the outline of the pre-1961 British system with all ministers questioned for a long period daily. It’s a relief, somewhat, to examine Australia’s Question Time because it reminds me that things could be so much worse. Canada’s and New Zealands I find somewhat more palatable though and seem roughly the same as ours at a glance.

    It is depressing how the partisanship can lead to either sniping from the opposition or easy planted questions from the government. I long for the days when party cohesion and party mentality allows for much more independent-minded questioning.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Len: “I long for the days when party cohesion and party mentality allows for much more independent-minded questioning.”

      You may wish to observe the House of Lords…..

      • Len says:

        The House of Lords certainly is a much more independent place, I just wish sometimes that it wasn’t *just* the Lords!

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