What is PMQs?
Prime Minister’s Question Time, or PMQs as it is so often called, is a parliamentary session held weekly – each Wednesday from noon – to give the opposition leader, as well as other members from across the House of Commons, a chance to question the prime minister. The weekly event happens when parliament is in session, however, if the prime minister is away, for example on a foreign trip or attending a summit, another member of the government will take their place.
Currently, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour party and opposition, questions the Prime Minister Theresa May, the most. Since the 2015 election, during which the SNP surged to take the third largest number of seats, pushing the Liberal Democrats aside, the party is a lot more present during the sessions.
PMQs holds the PM accountable!
The main argument in favour of PMQs is that the event allows the prime minister to be held accountable by the opposition and the public on a weekly basis. The event is now a public affair, broadcast live and often making the headlines into the evening. As a result, it’s a very public way of holding the government to account. Other parliamentary debates can also be viewed live, but PMQs is by far the most popular, allowing the prime minister and leader of the opposition to go head-to-head in the most public setting possible.
Questions are asked from across the house
Proponents of PMQs will say that a fundamental advantage of the event is that it allows for a range of questions to be asked to the prime minister, crucially from a range of different parties. Yes, the bulk of the questions are given to the leader of the opposition, however, other parties and MPs do get to have their word in. This is a strong advantage as it allows the government to be held accountable from a range of different political positions and ensures that the voices of smaller parties are heard in a publicly viewed setting.
It’s an outdated rabble
Even if you don't know much about PMQs it's likely you've heard it described as a "shouting match" or as "Punch and Judy politics". The spectacle gets such labels because it often descends into chaos, with cheering and jeering from both sides of the house. Jokes are often made at the expense of the prime minister or the questioner, making the whole thing seem a bit of a shambles and not fit for purpose in a 21st century leading democracy. As a result, this criticism adds to the idea that politics has a bad image. PMQs may be entertaining for the media and politico bubbles, but to the regular person it is often seen as a show, damaging the image of politics further.
Answers to questions are often avoided
Critics of PMQs are quick to point out that the prime minister at the time often avoids answering questions. This is a common accusation in politics, but one that is particularly striking in this case as PMQs is meant to be an opportunity for the House of Commons to ask the prime minister questions and get answers. When questions are brushed aside with rhetoric and jokes it arguably undermines the process of accountability, weakening the UK’s democracy and the link between the ordinary citizen watching and the government of the day.
Prime Minister May
Theresa May’s first session is remembered for her joke about “unscrupulous bosses” and her referring this to Jeremy Corbyn who at the time was being challenged for the leadership of his party. She is also said to have channelled Margaret Thatcher during her first session through her “remind him of anybody?” comment. The comparison was drawn by numerous newspapers at the time.
Corbyn’s first session: a new format?
When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party in 2015 he set out to forge a “kinder politics”, one that connects to ordinary people. In his first Prime Ministers Question Time (to David Cameron at the time) he mixed things up. Before his first session, he asked the public for questions, following which he claimed to have been sent 40,000 questions. During the Question Time, he asked Prime Minister Cameron a number of the questions he had been sent in an attempt to connect the people with the parliamentary process.
Thatcher’s three no’s:
One notable PMQs during Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister was when discussing the prospect of the European Commission having increased powers and her subsequent, now famous, “No. No. No.” statement:
“Yes, the Commission wants to increase its powers. Yes, it is a non-elected body and I do not want the Commission to increase its powers at the expense of the House, so of course we differ. The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors , said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.”
Here is another famous exchange featuring Margaret Thatcher on inequality and growth:
Read our mythbuster on Thatcher's legacy here.