Prime Minister's Questions
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Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs, officially known as Questions to the Prime Minister, while colloquially known as Prime Minister's Question Time) is a constitutional convention in the United Kingdom, currently held as a single session every Wednesday at noon when the House of Commons is sitting, during which the Prime Minister answers questions from Members of Parliament (MPs).
Although prime ministers have answered questions in parliament for centuries, until the 1880s, questions to the prime minister were treated the same as questions to other Ministers of the Crown: asked without notice, on days when ministers were available in whatever order MPs rose to ask them. In 1881 fixed time-limits for questions were introduced and questions to the prime minister were moved to the last slot of the day as a courtesy to the 72-year-old prime minister at the time, William Gladstone, so he could come to the Commons later in the day. In 1953, when Winston Churchill (in his late 70s at the time) was prime minister, it was agreed that questions would be submitted on fixed days (Tuesdays and Thursdays).
A Procedure Committee report in 1959 recommended that questions to the prime minister be taken in two fixed-period, 15-minute slots on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The recommendations were put into practice under Harold Macmillan during a successful experiment from 18 July 1961 to the end of the session on 4 August. The very first question was delivered by Labour MP Fenner Brockway, asking to which Minister the UK Ambassador to South Africa would be responsible. In response to the Prime Minister's answer, Brockway said "May I express our appreciation of this new arrangement for answering Questions and the hope that it will be convenient for the Prime Minister as well as useful to the House?" PMQs were made permanent in the following parliamentary session, with the first of these on 24 October 1961.
The style and culture of PMQs has changed gradually over time. According to Speaker Selwyn Lloyd, the now famous disorderly behaviour of MPs during PMQs first arose as a result of the personal animosity between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath; before this PMQs had been lively but comparatively civilised. In the past, prime ministers often opted to transfer questions to the relevant minister, and Leaders of the Opposition did not always take their allocated number of questions in some sessions, sometimes opting not to ask any questions at all. This changed during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when the prime minister chose not to transfer any questions to other members of her Cabinet, and Labour leader Neil Kinnock began asking more questions than his predecessors. His successor, John Smith, established the precedent of always taking his full allocation of questions.
One of Tony Blair's first acts as prime minister was to replace the two 15-minute sessions with a single 30-minute session on Wednesdays, initially at 3 p.m. but since 2003 at noon. The allocated number of questions in each session for the Leader of the Opposition was doubled from three to six, and the leader of the third-largest party in the Commons was given two questions as opposed to one question beforehand. The first PMQs to use this new format took place on 21 May 1997.
During the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010–2015, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a member of the government, did not ask questions during PMQs. Instead, the leader of the second largest parliamentary opposition party at the time, Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), usually asked a single question later in the session, followed by at least one MP from another smaller party such as the Scottish National Party or Plaid Cymru.
Backbench MPs wishing to ask a question must enter their names on the Order Paper. The names of entrants are then shuffled in a ballot to produce a random order in which they will be called by the Speaker. The Speaker will then call on MPs to put their questions, usually in an alternating fashion: one MP from the government benches is followed by one from the opposition benches. MPs who are not selected may be chosen to ask a supplementary question if they "catch the eye" of the Speaker, which is done by standing and sitting immediately before the prime minister gives an answer.
The Leader of the Opposition usually asks six questions at PMQs, either as a whole block or in two separate groups of three. If the first question is asked by a government backbencher, the Leader of the Opposition is the second MP to ask questions. If the first question is asked by an opposition MP, this will be followed by a question from a government MP and then by the questions from the Leader of the Opposition. The leader of the third largest parliamentary party (the Liberal Democrats from 1988–2010 and the Scottish National Party from 2015) would then ask two questions.
The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number one, Mr. Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister "if s/he will list his/her engagements for the day". The Prime Minister usually replies:
The reason for such a question is that, historically, the Prime Minister may be questioned only as to those matters for which he or she is directly responsible. Such matters are relatively few in number, because many substantive matters are handled by the other Ministers in the Cabinet. By requiring the Prime Minister to list his or her engagements, the members may then inquire whether the Prime Minister ought to be engaged in some other activity or be taking some other action.
Before listing the day's engagements, the Prime Minister sometimes extends condolences or offers congratulations after significant events. During the Iraq War, Tony Blair introduced the practice of naming any British military personnel who had been killed in service since the last time he addressed the House. This practice was continued by Blair's successors as prime minister. After this, the MP may ask a supplementary question about any subject which might occupy the Prime Minister's time. Most MPs table the same engagements question and so after it has been asked for the first time, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled question, meaning that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked.
Occasionally the first question tabled is on a specific area of policy, not the engagements question. This, though, is quite rare as it would allow the Prime Minister to prepare a response in advance; the non-descript question allows some chance of catching him or her out with an unexpected supplementary question.
At times of national or personal tragedy or crisis, PMQs have been temporarily suspended. The last such suspension occurred on 25 February 2009 when the Speaker, at the request of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suspended the Commons until 12:30 p.m. as a mark of respect following the unexpected death of Opposition leader David Cameron's son. Prime Minister's Questions was also suspended after the sudden death of the leader of the Labour Party, John Smith, in 1994.
PMQs has been filmed since 1989, and has been broadcast live since 1990. It is broadcast live in the United Kingdom on the BBC Two and BBC Parliament TV channels. It is also broadcast outside the United Kingdom, most notably on the US cable network C-SPAN and has been spoofed on the American late-night television sketch comedy Saturday Night Live. In a C-SPAN interview in 1991, shortly after the network started to broadcast PMQs, US President George H. W. Bush said, "I count my blessings for the fact I don't have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other."
Absence of the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition
If the Prime Minister is away on official business when PMQs is scheduled, their role is usually filled by the Deputy Prime Minister. If this office is not occupied or the Deputy Prime Minister is not available, the next most senior member of the Cabinet will receive questions (such as the First Secretary of State or the Deputy Leader of the government party). In the absence of the Leader of the Opposition, the opposition questions will be usually led by the next highest ranking member of the Shadow Cabinet. From 1992 to 2020, a convention was in place so that if either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition is absent, the other faction would nominate someone to stand, meaning that both sides were stood in for. This precedent was broken at Sir Keir Starmer's first PMQs as Leader of the Opposition, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalised due to illness with COVID-19. First Secretary of State Dominic Raab stood in for the Prime Minister. On 16 September 2020, a member of Starmer's household displayed COVID-19 symptoms, meaning he was self-isolating. As a result, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Shadow First Secretary of State, Angela Rayner stood in for him putting questions to Johnson. Before 1992, the replacement would often question the Prime Minister or vice versa. For example, Roy Hattersley, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party between 1983–92, stood in for Neil Kinnock facing Margaret Thatcher on 38 occasions between February 1984 and July 1990.
Boris Johnson also became the first prime minister taking PMQs outside the chamber virtually after having been told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace as he met with Lee Anderson who later tested positive for covid-19.
During the Cameron–Clegg coalition, Nick Clegg answered 15 PMQs and William Hague twice, opposite Harriet Harman.[a] During the Second Cameron ministry, George Osborne answered thrice, opposite Angela Eagle.[b] In the Second May ministry, Damian Green replied twice,[c] opposite Emily Thornberry, while David Lidington did so six times, opposite Thornberry and Rebecca Long-Bailey.[d] On 2 October 2019, Diane Abbott became the first black MP to stand for PMQS and ask the six main questions when she challenged the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, in his capacity as First Secretary.
Leaders at the dispatch box since 1961
The most high-profile contributors at Prime Minister's questions are the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, who speak opposite each other at the dispatch box. Regular, fixed sessions have taken place since 1961, and the list below outlines the prime ministers since 1961 and Opposition party leaders they faced across the floor of the House of Commons, as well as the secondary opposition leader since 1997 (usually the leader of third largest party within the House of Commons):
|Party key||Conservative||Liberal Democrats|
|Labour||Scottish National Party|
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister's Questions is broadcast live via cameras within the Press Gallery inside the House of Commons on domestic national television channels BBC Two, the BBC News Channel, BBC Parliament and Sky News. It is also broadcast live on the national radio station BBC Radio 5 Live.
In the United States, Prime Minister's Questions is broadcast live on the national C-SPAN television network. C-SPAN also has an archive of Prime Minister’s Questions coverage going back to 1989 when it was first televised. There is no live radio coverage of Prime Minister's Questions in that country.
Worldwide, Prime Minister's Questions is broadcast live via the official British Parliament website parliamentlive.tv, in visual and audio form.
- 20 June 2012 and 10 September 2014
- 17 June 2015, 9 December 2015 and 25 May 2016
- 12 July 2017 and 29 November 2017
- 7 December 2016, 31 January 2018, 11 July 2018, 6 February 2019, 24 April 2019 and 5 June 2019
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