30 facts about PMQs

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 13 October 2010 in Diary
By Insight Public Affairs 1.

By Insight Public Affairs

1. At age 40, Ed Miliband will become the youngest Labour leader to oppose a prime minister at PMQs, a record previously held by Tony Blair who was 41 at the time. At 36, William Hague was the youngest Conservative leader since William Pitt who became first minister in 1783.

2. John Major had to face PMQs on only his second day in office. The session began when, as he rose to answer his first question, Labour MP Dennis Skinner shouted "resign!"

3. Although prime ministers have answered questions in Parliament for centuries, fixed time-slots were only introduced in 1881 after the election of William Gladstone. As a courtesy to the elderly prime minister, aged 72 at the time, questions were placed last on the agenda to enable him to come into the House later in the day.

4. In 1997, Blair was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812 to take the despatch box. His record was broken by David Cameron in 2010, who at the age of 43 was six months younger than Blair.

5. Before the twice-weekly PMQs, Harold Wilson was known to indulge in two or three glasses of brandy. He later gave it up to shed a few pounds.

6. Neil Kinnock used PMQs as a tool for enhancing his public profile. He asked an average of 2.5 questions per PMQs, a much higher proportion than Mrs Thatcher had done in opposition.

7. In 1953, with respect to Winston Churchill, then aged 79, it was agreed that PMQs would be scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays rather than at the end of each day.

8. Bi-weekly PMQs, held on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, were formally recognised in October 1961 under prime minister Harold Macmillan following the recommendations of a 1959 procedure committee report.

9. Of recent prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher was present at 92.3% of PMQs, John Major at 88.2%, Tony Blair at 95%, Gordon Brown at 88.2% and David Cameron at 80% so far.

10. Tony Blair succumbed to the superstition of wearing the same pair of shoes to every session of PMQs and twice feared he might be suffering heart problems during a heated confrontation.

11. PMQs marks its 50th anniversary in October 2011. The first modern day PMQs took place on 24 October, 1961.

Event briefing

12. The average viewing figures for The Daily Politics show are approximately 260,000 per show. Wednesday’s edition, featuring PMQs, attracts its biggest audience at 350,000 viewers.

13. On 21 July, 2010, Nick Clegg became the first Liberal to respond to PMQs since its formalisation in 1961, and the first to address the House on behalf of a PM since Lloyd

George in the 1920s.

14. Backbenchers were initially responsible for most of the questioning during PMQs. In 1964, for instance, Harold Wilson, then leader of the opposition, was frequently only called to ask a question once in one of the two sessions. Now party leaders are responsible for almost a third of the questions asked.

15. In July 2010, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow MP suggested that in order to restore some form of discipline and order during PMQs, Parliament should introduce the political equivalent of yellow and red cards.

16. The procedure behind PMQs has come under review 12 times in 1965, 1970, 1972, 1976, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2009. While some changes to its format have been notable, testament to its political value, the practice of PMQs, remains, in essence, the same as it was in 1961.

17. In his memoirs, Blair stated: "PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowelmoving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question. You know that scene in Marathon Man where the evil Nazi doctor played by Laurence Olivier drills through Dustin Hoffman's teeth? At around 11.45 on Wednesday mornings, I would have swapped 30 minutes of PMQs for 30 minutes of that."

18. Margaret Thatcher was the first prime minister to answer all questions herself and not to defer to her ministers.

19. In his autobiography, Speaker Selwyn Lloyd deplored the decline in behaviour at PMQs and blamed it on the personal animosity between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.

20. A 2009 survey by the Regulatory Policy Institute of all PMQs posed concluded that Gordon Brown had answered only 56% of all questions asked of him. The same survey determined that only 56% of the questions asked of him were actually genuine questions in the first place!

21. Faced with a question from David Cameron on why the recent bank bailouts had failed, Gordon Brown accidently replied: "We not only saved the world..." when what he meant to say was "We not only saved the banks..." His response cued mass hysteria, jeering and yelling from across the benches. To the surprise of everyone, including Gordon Brown, a famously rebellious Labour backbencher, Alan Simpson, came to Brown’s defence. He said: "It is quite nice to have a prime minister who would save the world when we are faced with an opposition who would barely save face."

22. Facing five separate opposition leaders, Tony Blair encountered more opponents over the despatch box that any other modern prime minister. He came face to face with John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron.

23. Only Harold Wilson has faced three separate prime ministers as opposition leader: Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home and Edward Heath.

24. There have been 13 parliamentary security breaches since 1970, one of which was during PMQs when on 19 May, 2004, the session was abandoned after a Fathers 4 Justice campaigner threw two purple condoms filled with flour at Tony Blair.

25. Tony Blair’s first PMQs in 1997 marked a big change in the format of the event, which was moved from a twice weekly 15-minute session to a once-a-week 30 minute showdown.

26. The last time PMQs was cancelled was after the death of David Cameron's son in February 2009. It was the first time since January 2000, when the whole day’s parliamentary business was lost after the previous day’s proceedings ran over. Prior to this, PMQs was cancelled in May 1994, following the unexpected death of Labour leader John Smith who died of a heart attack, aged 55.

27. At the end of 2009, The Daily Politics selected Tony Blair's final speech as its favourite PMQs moment of the decade which ended with the words "I wish everyone friend or foe well and that is that — the end."

28. On 2 June 2010, David Cameron’s first question as prime minister came from Conservative backbencher Douglas Carswell who had had previously asked bloggers to submit a range of potential questions. After much online debate in the blogosphere, Carswell settled on a question about quangos and the unelected House of Lords.

29. Former US President Bill Clinton recently revealed that he tuned in to watch PMQs every week, apparently without fail, just to see how Tony Blair performed at the despatch box.

30. John Major was the first new prime minister seen at despatch box in the TV age, with coverage of Commons proceedings first televised on 21 November 1989. In order to maintain the dignity of the House, broadcasters were initially forced to focus on the Speaker during times of 'grave disorder' and were banned from using reaction shots of MPs during PMQs.

Insight Public Affairs is an award-winning public affairs and public relations agency

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