Useful Notes: Prime Minister's Question Time
Jim Hacker: Opposition's about asking awkward questions.
And government is about not answering them.
"Prime Minister, could you look interested while I bring up some boring shit about my constituency?"
— Frankie Boyle, Mock the Week
: "Bad things to say at Prime Minister's Question Time"
Prime Minister's Question Time (Usually abbreviated to PMQs) is a half-hour session in the British House of Commons every Wednesday usually at 12:30pm (when in session), in which the Prime Minister answers questions on issues of the day. Unless he's careful.
Many Commonwealth countries that use the Westminster system of Government have their own examples of Question Time within their own parliaments.
Things that occur often in PMQs:
- "Question Number One, Mr. Speaker": This is the opening written question which asks the Prime Minister to outline his engagements for the day. Technically, MPs must submit all of their questions in writing before the session and the speaker randomly picks the questions to be asked. Obviously, this is the equivalent to mailing the enemy the plans before every battle, and to get around this, the opposition party members will simply write "question number one" as their written submission, and ask their actual question as a follow-up (this is why the Question is so vague—technically the supplementary question must be related to the submitted one). This in the past has led to the PM having to say "I refer the Honourable Gentleman to my earlier answer" or words to that effect a lot. This rather stupid practice has now been dropped. If the "written question" is that one and it's not the first one, it's skipped. The usual response from the PM to that one is, "This morning I had meetings with my ministerial colleagues in addition to my duties in the House. I will have further such meetings later today."
- In his last session, Tony Blair concluded this statement with, "I will have no such further meetings today, or any other day." This met with laughter and applause from all assembled. (By the way, the applause was sincere—even the Tories recognized Blair's job well done.)
- Tributes to the war dead: All too often these days, the PM will precede the obligatory response to that question with a brief listing and tribute to all those who died in foreign military operations since the last PMQs. Dead members of Parliament will also turn up here. Hopefully not in the flesh.
- The PM-Leader of the Opposition exchange: The Leader of the Opposition gets six questions, which he or she can use in one go, or split up as he or she desires. These questions are designed to embarrass the government. The PM usually dodges the question and attacks the Opposition. The best one-liners are here and this part will often get featured on the news broadcasts.
- The PM-Lib Dem Leader exchange: Or at least, it was before the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Tories. With only two questions for the Lib Dem leader, it wasn't such an interesting event, but there could still be some good stuff there. Acting Lib Dem leader Vince Cable's crack about Gordon Brown having transformed from "Stalin to Mr. Bean"note is probably the best known. Zing.
- Common things for the two above:
- Accusations of flip-flopping
- "Your minister disagrees with you".
- Quoting statistics at each other.
- Soft Government backbencher questions: Here, loyal government backbenchers ask really soft questions and praise the prime minister for the new maternity ward or whatnot in their constituencies. Will attack the Opposition in these "questions" (sometimes they won't actually ask a question). Sometimes the Speaker will tell them to ask an actual question or sit down.
- Will be phrased as "Prime Minister, could you please detail in length why you are so awesome?" Or something similar.
- In Australia these are colloquially known as "Dorothy Dixers", named after one of the earliest examples of the advice columnist.
- General rowdiness, cat calls etc. A lot fewer than there were, due to PMQs being moved a few years ago to before lunch (where many MPs would have a pint or two).
- It was largely for this reason that Robin Williams referred to it as 'the House of Congress with a two drink minimum'.
- The whole thing has been called "Punch and Judy politics", naming it after the children's puppet show which chiefly involves the characters endlessly beating each other with sticks.
It's broadcast on BBC2
(although they won't necessarily show the whole thing), BBC Parliament
, BBC News 24, Sky News and C-SPAN
. Has been the subject of no small amount of envy from American political junkies, who would enjoy watching an American President answer questions from the opposition. American Presidential candidate John Mc Cain
proposed a "President's Question Time" in 2008, but the idea went nowhere.
(With this in mind, do not confuse it with the BBC political show Question Time
- The place will often be far too empty. In real life, the Commons Chamber (which only has seats for 430 out of the c.650 Members anyway) is always standing room only. At all other times the chamber will be mostly empty unless there is an important vote, even for debates on vital issues. Sad, but true. It's a good thing when they had to rebuild the chamber following bomb damage in WW2 that they went with the old (too small) design, as one of the reasons Churchill for one pressed for keeping the old style (besides tradition) was that if there were seats for everyone most debates would take place with less than a quarter of the space filled.
- There is now a computer game regarding the activity.
- Saturday Night Live ran a sketch with Mike Myers (guest hosting at this point) playing John Major. One MP (played by Will Farrell) repeatedly pressed the prime minister on his plans to deal with the pending break-up of the band Oasis and one Irish MP (played by Colin Quinn) grew so agitated (mostly by the PM's rebuttals of his questions being little more than "alcoholic Irish" jokes) he started asking questions like "Will the prime minister be driving his usual car home tonight?" and "Would the prime minister mind holding this unmarked package for a few hours?"
- They did this skit a second time, with guest host Matthew Broderick playing Blair. Most of the jokes were recycled from the first sketch, except that Farrell's character had moved from an obsession with Oasis to an obsession with Teletubbies.