Scroll down for exclusive interviews with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg on their experiences at PMQs
Tony Blair described it as “the emotional, intellectual and political repository of all that is irrational”, and the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has called for “more scrutiny, more civility, less noise and less abuse masquerading as inquiry”, so what’s the point of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), and who is it for?
Over the years, PMQs has undergone many transformations. Before the late 19th century, questions to the prime minister were treated no differently from questions to other ministers. In 1881, as a kindness to the 72-year-old William Gladstone, Speaker Sir Henry Brand listed questions to the PM at the end of each day’s business, but constraints on parliamentary time ensured that appearances were far from regular.
The next significant change came in 1953 under Speaker Morrison, when ill health dictated that Sir Winston Churchill would answer questions in the House only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This mark of respect to Churchill was adopted as a convention by Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan until the next big overhaul in 1961, when Speaker Hylton-Foster introduced two fixed 15-minute sessions for PMQs at 3.15pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
One of the greatest transformations, however, came in 1977 when James Callaghan accepted recommendations from the procedures committee that the PM should answer most questions himself rather than deferring to relevant ministers, as was previously the practice.
The broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings furthered the gladiatorial comedy of PMQs. On 3 March 1978, over 50 years after first discussions on the matter, BBC radio bosses were given the green light to broadcast daily editions of Question Time, including PMQs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One former researcher from this era – now a senior MP – told me:
Radio made PMQs much more of a performance… After the first few sessions, members were hearing their own voices, and they saw it as an opportunity to gain personal notoriety
Conversely, the same source told me that TV broadcasting, introduced in November 1989, “made little difference initially” to members’ performances. “If anything, it made people more self-conscious for the first year.”
It’s a view that has been backed by politicians and journalists across the board. In 1997, Tony Blair scrapped the 36-year-old twice-weekly PMQ convention in favour of one fixed session of half an hour each Wednesday, which Robin Cook, as leader of the House, brought forward to the midday slot it occupies today. In his memoirs, Blair explains that his reformation of PMQs was made with the “physical and mental” strains of a twice-weekly showdown in mind: “I never regretted that decision, and subsequent prime ministers will thank me for it.”
Today, prominent figures offer conflicting views on the direction and function of PMQs. Last year, Speaker Bercow slammed PMQs as “a litany of attacks, soundbites and planted questions from across the spectrum”, and proclaimed pharisaically, “If it is scrutiny at all, then it is scrutiny by screech.” The Speaker declined to be interviewed, but his view that “the public despise” shouting at PMQs is well recorded.
Shadow Northern Ireland minister Stephen Pound says: “Never, in my 14 years in this House, have I ever heard any constituent complaining that they despise shouting at PMQs.” Quentin Letts from the Daily Mail backs this view: “There is absolutely no evidence of discontent with shouting and confrontation in my mailbag.” And in a rare moment of unity across the spectrum, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, Kevin Maguire, ventures: “I don’t think the public would watch it if it were a Socratic debate.”
I asked each MP featured here, and many others, whether they’ve ever received any communication complaining about the behaviour of MPs during PMQs. Only one backbencher told me that he had, and then qualified it by mentioning he’d received “just two letters in 20 years”.
Speaker Bercow is not the first to have called for the confrontation during PMQs to end. Tony Blair pledged to end the ‘yah-boo’ of British politics, David Cameron famously promised to end ‘Punch and Judy’, and Ed Miliband told me: “We really have to change the tone.”
Cameron’s former press secretary George Eustice explains why any attempt at a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ would inevitably be extinguished by the cold, hard rain of political expediency. “Early on, there was a feeling that PMQs was not a good spectacle for the public. They just saw children fighting in a playground, slinging abuse at each other. So, we tried – and Tony Blair tried before us – this idea that you would try and make it a mature discussion. No more ‘Punch and Judy politics’ is what Cameron said. We picked more earnest, serious topics that didn’t create a lot of political knock-about, but which were, nevertheless, important.
“It didn’t work, because over time, the hacks in the Lobby get bored. They want blood on the carpet, and they want good copy. During earnest questions, they just put their pencils down. There was no scribbling going on. So, you start to get them muttering in the newspaper sketches, saying, ‘Oh well, he’s not very good’, ‘He’s flat’, that sort of thing. They liked to see the knock-about – it’s what people expect, and you’ve got to give it to them or they mutter and moan.”
Ed Miliband points out in his Q&A (p47) that the Commons is “primed for confrontation”. This is backed by the MPs that I asked to come up with one word to describe the atmosphere during PMQs. Words that kept coming up were: intimidating, scary, crowded, adversarial, combinative, confined, uncomfortable, noisy, hot and competitive.
The chamber is set up to be as adversarial as any sports arena. MPs are in a pit overlooked by three galleries: the public gallery, unfortunately screened off with soundproof glass; the glassless special galleries, from where members’ guests can watch proceedings; and the press gallery, located behind and to the sides of the Speaker’s chair. It’s noisier in the flesh, and those in the chamber do not have the benefit of TV microphones to hear every crowd-drowned word that viewers do at home.
Interestingly, in 1943 MPs shunned the chance to redesign the chamber after the old one was bombed during the war, opting instead to replicate the confined conditions they’d become accustomed to. Churchill told MPs that the old layout was responsible for Britain’s two-party system, which he described as “the bedrock of British parliamentary democracy”. This is why today the Commons chamber has just 427 seats for 650 members. As Churchill observed: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”
There’s much debate about the way PMQs plays with the public perception of politics, but Robbie Gibb, the respected editor of BBC’s live political programmes, says that whatever people say about how they want their politics to be conducted, viewers seem to like it as it is. “It’s no surprise,” he explains, “that the audience for The Daily Politics on a Wednesday is more than double the number who watch during the rest of the week.”
Although there’s no apparent correlation between the performance of party leaders and their popularity in the polls, they know they must perform well at the despatch box if they want to keep their backbenchers happy. This is the principal objective of PMQs for the prime minister. The same, of course, applies to the leader of the opposition, but the additional purpose for him is to land punches on the PM and to take advantage of the increased media coverage to highlight issues.
Those who have the most to gain from PMQs are really the backbenchers. “It’s a battle for the PM’s in-tray,” Gordon Brown’s friend and former digital minister Tom Watson once observed, perceptively. There are countless cases where MPs have secured time in the prime minister’s diary for themselves or constituents. According to up-and-coming Conservative MP Gavin Williamson: “PMQs is about the highest profile opportunity we have to highlight constituency issues, both to the prime minister and to the public at large. We know that if the question is good enough, the press will pick it up. That’s good for us, and good for our constituents, too.”
While there’s no question that Ed Miliband and Speaker Bercow are right to point out that MPs are showboating to the media, I predict that both will eventually come to the conclusion that we broadcasters and reporters are not driven exclusively by what we want to see and hear, but by what our readers, viewers and listeners tell us, through our audience and sales figures, what they want to see and hear. Ultimately, if MPs are ‘playing’ to the press, they are engaging with the public – which is surely the point of PMQs.
The key players at PMQs, the prime minister, deputy prime minister, and leader of the opposition answer our questions
What do you get out of PMQs?
Well, you can get questioned on anything and everything, so Wednesday is a great day for making sure you’re absolutely up-to-date on the work of each department. MPs raise all kinds of issues on behalf of their constituents, and you never know what might come up.
Generally, what irritates you about PMQs, and do you ever take questions or criticism personally?
I don’t take it personally, no. Basically, most MPs want to represent their constituents and get their views across. If it gets a bit heated, that shows passion – which is no bad thing. The mood of the House is a fascinating thing – if people go over the top, it doesn’t work.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how nauseous and nervous do you feel before PMQs (1 being ‘hardly at all’, 10 being ‘extremely’)?
I’m not sure I could put a figure on it, but anyone who says they don’t find preparing for 30 minutes of PMQs intimidating is lying.
Tony Blair’s memoirs were quite good on this. When I first started doing them as leader of the opposition, William Hague’s advice was to drink very sugary tea to keep your throat clear. Problem is, put too much sugar in and that will make you feel sick.
How, if at all, do you feel you could improve your personal performance at PMQs?
I hope people think I’ve done okay so far. I try to answer the questions directly, and if it’s a constituency issue that needs looking into, then I’ll make sure I do that. But, as with so many things in politics, it’s for other people to judge.
What’s your view on confrontation, ‘Punch and Judy politics’ and levity at PMQs? Can it ever be any other way?
I have to hold my hands up that ending ‘Punch and Judy’ at PMQs was a promise I wasn’t able to deliver. I tried a quieter approach and frankly, it didn’t really work. The Commons can be a bit of a bear pit at times, so you have to be robust. Of course, where there’s real agreement between frontbenches – like on Afghanistan – it’s good to demonstrate that common purpose to the country at large. Though I do think it’s interesting that whenever people from abroad come and see PMQs, they almost all think it’s great that our democracy has such a passionate half an hour every week.
As leader of the opposition what do you get out of PMQs?
PMQs is an opportunity to ask the questions the country wants answering. That’s something my partner, Justine, often reminds me on a Wednesday morning. Because few people get the chance to put their questions to the prime minister, it’s very important to me that I’m raising issues that really matter in people’s lives – like schools funding, the NHS, policing, housing, child care. And it’s also one of the better-publicised spaces [from which] to scrutinise government policy, which is, of course, the constitutional obligation of the opposition, and a chance to shape the debate on this country’s future.
How nervous or nauseous do you feel before PMQs, and how much prep do you do?
I spend most of the morning preparing each Wednesday. I don’t get nervous, particularly. Going up on Newsnight and Question Time during the Labour leadership election was the hardest thing I’ve done – certainly more difficult and nerve-wracking than doing PMQs.
With the benefit of your experience as leader so far, how, if at all, do you feel you can improve your performance at PMQs?
I’m happy with how things have gone so far. In four months, we’ve forced the Conservative-led government to look again at some of the unfair or unwise aspects of its policy, including abolishing the school sports partnerships, changes to housing benefit, and the proposed sell-off of the forests. One thing I’ve learned is something that’s not always easy to get a sense of on the TV or the radio – the level of noise in the chamber. You have to learn to ride that wave of noise, and that can be difficult.
What are your thoughts on the adversarial nature of PMQs, and can any one person take the ‘yah-boo’ and ‘Punch and Judy’ out of it?
It’s a naturally combative environment – of course it is. Even the way the despatch boxes are set up is primed for confrontation. But we really have to change the tone of PMQs.
Politics is already too remote from people’s lives, and the public does not want to see out-of-touch politicians having a go at each other, or trying to score cheap points. They want to see the bread-and-butter issues debated and discussed in a serious way. So, PMQs should always be focused on the political, not the personal. And yes, I think it can change. When very serious political choices weigh on the House – as we’ve seen recently during my questions on the crisis in Egypt, and on Afghanistan – there is, absolutely, space and cause for more mature discussion.
Does the prime minister ever rile you at the despatch box?
I don’t get riled. It’s his job to answer questions and mine to try to get answers on issues that matter to people. So even though he and I may disagree on many important things, like the economy, it’s important not to become rattled.
What irritates you about PMQs? If you could change one thing about it, what would it be?
The format can be quite restrictive. The opposition leader gets six questions, and they really have to be quite pithy, because backbenchers also need time to ask questions. But PMQs is only one way in which politicians can communicate. It’s also very important that we listen to people, face-to-face, outside Westminster; that we discuss and understand the decisions made in Westminster which affect people’s lives every day.
What purpose does PMQs serve, both for you and your party?
Before I became deputy prime minister, as leader of the Liberal Democrats I had just two questions at PMQs to try and make my mark. Sometimes it worked – as it did when I challenged Gordon Brown to appear before the Chilcot inquiry and when I raised the plight of the Gurkhas – but just as often it didn’t. It’s very tricky when you only have two questions to get stuck in between the main brawl going on across the despatch box. But now things have changed. I have DPMQs every few weeks where MPs can test me with their questions, and I sometimes stand in at PMQs when the prime minister is away. But more often than not these days I get a ringside seat for the occasion on the government frontbench.
If you could change anything about PMQs, what would it be?
I’d like to be able to hear myself think at times above all the bawling and shouting.
What irritates you about PMQs?
The trick is to try and not get too irritated by it all. Enjoy it if you can. Most of it is theatre and should be taken with a pinch of salt.
How do you think the public feels about confrontation?
I think that people who follow politics often like the gladiatorial, bear-pit atmosphere that is PMQs but, if I’m honest, I think most normal people probably think it’s something of an absurd panto.
How did you feel about deputising at PMQs?
Obviously, it was pretty nerve-wracking at first, but soon enough I got into the swing of things and found myself shouting and bawling like everyone else. You try and guess beforehand most of the questions that will be thrown at you – but more often than not, it’s the left-field questions you never anticipated that sneak their way through your defences.
Click here to read more MPs' views on PMQs.
Sean Dilley is the parliamentary lobby correspondent for talkSPORT Radio