Punch & Judy Politics? The roles and functions of Prime Minister’s Question Time

ruxandra.serbanIn their recently published book, former Labour advisers Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton explore the backstage machinery behind Prime Minister’s Question Time. Drawing on her PhD research, which focuses on parliamentary mechanisms for holding prime ministers accountable in parliamentary democracies, Ruxandra Serban reflects on how the book informs wider debates in legislative studies.

Prime Minister’s Question Time does not have a particularly good reputation. Designed as a weekly opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, it is criticised for being noisy, excessively theatrical, scripted, and confrontational. But to what extent does it fulfil its role in holding the Prime Minister to account? What other roles does it perform for parliament and for the political system?

As PMQs provides a forum for the head of government to be questioned publicly and routinely by MPs, its implications for politics and for the workings of democracy are very important. In the recently published Punch & Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton offer useful insights into the procedures and practices for holding Prime Ministers accountable. Drawing on interviews with key players at the centre of politics, as well as on their experience as advisers to several Labour Party leaders, the authors expose the machinery behind the weekly duel between party leaders. In what is a thorough and insightful overview of PMQs, they trace the development of the procedure from its introduction in 1961, document the extensive preparation that goes on both in No 10 and in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and describe the strategies underpinning questions and answers. In providing such a detailed account, the book in part sets out to understand the roles and functions of PMQs, and contributes to a wider conversation in legislative studies about the functions of parliamentary questions, and of parliaments more generally.

As the book suggests, the key feature of PMQs is that it places the Prime Minister in the spotlight. Among the mechanisms used for questioning prime ministers in other parliamentary democracies, PMQs can be classified as an individualised plenary procedure: that is, the Prime Minister is questioned on their own, on the floor of the House of Commons. This feature makes the UK relatively unusual: similar procedures exist in Ireland, Norway and Denmark, and have recently been introduced in Germany, but most countries question the Prime Minister together with other ministers. The ‘routine check-up’ regularity of PMQs, compared to mechanisms that are convened less often, also means that UK prime ministers must be constantly up to speed with what is going on in government.

However, the point-scoring and theatrical behaviour that characterise PMQs are seen as detrimental to adequate scrutiny. Despite initiatives to change the style and tone of questioning coming from David Cameron, Ed Miliband, and, more recently, Jeremy Corbyn, ultimately both sides want to perform well and to come out victorious. But what are the implications of these features? How do they affect the quality of accountability?

In describing the various strategic uses of questions and answers, the book’s authors make an important point: aside from providing a forum for Prime Ministers to be questioned, PMQs also fulfils other roles for parliament and for the political system. As legislative studies scholars have suggested, MPs may use questions to request information or demand action, but also to put forward issues that are relevant to their constituents, to attack and score political points against the government, and to support their own side.

Accountability and policy influence

Parliaments provide a forum for governments to be held accountable. The explicit purpose of questions is to give MPs a means through which to extract information about the government’s activity and decisions, and to demand remedial action where necessary.

The procedural particularities of PMQs produce visible effects on the strategies of questioning. Firstly, questions are open: members need not submit a question in advance, as is the case in other countries such as Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and the Netherlands. This means that the exact topics of questions are unknown to Prime Ministers, although it is reasonable to assume that issues related to the big political news of the week will come up. Secondly, although the main focus of the encounter is the exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker also calls backbench members to ask questions, making it a very participatory procedure.

The open style of questioning requires the Prime Minister to be informed about numerous topics. The book documents how all prime ministers spend a significant amount of time preparing with their teams, who must ensure that the Prime Minister is aware of what is going on across government departments. Compared to similar procedures in other countries, where prime ministers receive written notice of questions, or where fewer actors may intervene to ask questions, PMQs creates a high degree of exposure for the Prime Minister. The individualised nature of PMQs, compared to procedures where prime ministers are questioned alongside ministers, also gives the Prime Minister a high degree of control – it makes ‘every department accountable to the prime minister’ (p.15). In the early days of PMQs, Prime Ministers used to refer questions to other ministers. This practice stopped under Margaret Thatcher, who saw PMQs as an opportunity to be informed about everything going on in government, and started answering most of the questions herself (pp.114-5).

PMQs is largely an opportunity for the opposition to set the agenda: although Prime Ministers can anticipate topics to a certain degree, they can only react to the questions put to them. Being the lead questioner puts the Leader of the Opposition in a privileged position: they may use their six questions to undertake forensic questioning on one topic, as blocks of questions on unrelated topics, or as a set of topics linked by an overall political theme. The Leader of the Opposition can also maintain a sustained campaign on a particular topic week after week, as the book suggests was the case with John Smith questioning John Major about tax raises, Tony Blair asking John Major about executive pay at privatised utilities, and Ed Miliband pursuing David Cameron on energy bills. The book very nicely describes the behind-the-scenes planning of these different approaches on the opposition side, and the pros and cons between them.

The book also offers interesting insights into how PMQs can influence policy. The key strength of PMQs is the preparation it requires from all parties involved. It forces the government to identify potentially problematic topics, and to come up with answers; it also forces the opposition to identify effective questions and to make sure that its own alternatives are feasible. If the Prime Minister’s team finds that a potential question may cause problems, they may press the relevant department to make a decision. During Theresa May’s premiership, plans in the budget to increase rates of National Insurance contributions for self-employed people were dropped in a statement by the Chancellor on a Wednesday, just before PMQs.

Leadership recruitment and testing

Parliaments also provide an arena for testing leadership abilities. Parliamentarians may use interventions in debates in order to build their profile as potential leaders, but current leaders must also prove their mettle.

PMQs allows Prime Ministers to make the case that they are capable leaders and that the government is making the right decisions. Correspondingly, the Leader of the Opposition has a chance to show that they would be a competent potential Prime Minister. This is connected to the well-defined role of the opposition in the UK – and in other Westminster systems – as the alternative government. The Leader of the Opposition also undergoes extensive preparation for PMQs: the process would start about three days in advance for David Cameron and Ed Miliband during their time as Leaders of the Opposition.

PMQs also provides leadership testing opportunities for other senior politicians, and stand-ins are sometimes evaluated as potential leaders. As the book demonstrates, this was the case when George Osborne stood in for David Cameron in 2015 among speculations that the Conservative Party was already considering finding a successor to the leadership. On the Labour side, Hilary Benn’s PMQs debut in 2015, weeks after Labour had lost the general election, was seen as a potential test of his public leadership skills.

In terms of assessing leadership abilities, PMQs undoubtedly entails a performative dimension: humour and rhetoric play an important role, and both teams prepare rejoinders and jokes. The public nature of PMQs means that political leaders are also exposed beyond the parliamentary arena – their performance is evaluated in TV studios, live blogs, sketches and podcasts, and it is also scrutinised live on social media.

Conflict management and tension release

Parliaments provide a forum for the expression of conflict. The book points out that adversarial behaviour is inherent to PMQs: the role of the opposition is to criticise the government, and the government will also try to discredit the opposition’s alternatives. Conflict is therefore an expression of genuine disagreement over policies and of strong political feelings – it is not just a theatrical performance. The tone of exchanges is neutral when conflictual behaviour would be inappropriate – for example in the case of an international crisis or natural disaster, or when there is cross-party agreement over an issue.

Political support and legitimation

Parliaments also provide a space for the expression of support. Government backbenchers sometimes ask questions that allow the Prime Minister to make a statement and to attack the opposition. The use of such ‘helpful’ questions is common in other systems as well, for example in Australia. In turn, Prime Ministers may use their speaking time to praise their own side and to defend the government’s decisions. Opposition whips also ensure that their backbenchers provide support for the party’s message. Opposition backbenchers may use their questions either to probe further on topics raised by the Leader of the Opposition, or to cover other topics.

Socialisation, linkage and representation

PMQs also serves as a training ground for parliamentarians. Backbenchers have the opportunity to address a full House of Commons and to learn how to perform various roles. Whilst the main focus of the book is the interaction between leaders, it goes some way into documenting the ways in which backbench MPs use questions. It is an opportunity for them to show loyalty by supporting their own side and contributing to the attack on the opponent. David Cameron even listed types of backbench questions: ‘the unanswerable question, the teaser, the “Daily Mail special”, the dull but effective local question’ (p.231). Still, the wide participation of backbench MPs in PMQs suggests that their use of questions is more diverse than simply supporting their leaders. Preliminary results of an analysis of questions addressed to prime ministers in the UK and Australia as part of my PhD research suggests that the range of questions asked by government backbenchers in the UK is far more diverse than the questions asked in Australia – indicating that they go beyond prompting statements from the prime minister.

As representative institutions, parliaments serve as a crucial democratic link between governments and citizens. PMQs provides a forum for local-level issues to be heard in parliament: many MPs ask questions relating to their constituencies. They may also pursue policy issues that interest them, or even criticise the government despite their own party being in office. Graham Allen MP used ‘closed questions’ in 2011 and 2012 to ask about early intervention policies. In their 2017 book on the legislative process at Westminster, Russell and Gover discuss how one opposition backbencher used PMQs to press David Cameron about how the abolition of the Child Trust Fund through the Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill would affect children in care. Although change was not effected during the bill’s passage through parliament, the Chancellor later announced that a new scheme for children in care would be considered (p.105-6).

Combining analysis and reflection about the roles and functions of questions with examples and anecdotes, this book offers a rich and insightful account of PMQs. The authors skilfully present the roles played by each actor, whilst also explaining the functioning of the backstage machinery. Each component of the parliamentary mechanism is carefully dismantled and examined: the questions, the answers, the jokes; the strategies of party leaders; the long hours of preparation, the noise, and the tension. It does an excellent job in documenting the confrontation between party leaders, but could have given more attention to the various ways in which backbenchers from both sides may use questions. The book does not manifestly seek to rehabilitate PMQs – it starts by openly admitting the shortcomings of the procedure and the legitimacy of the concerns expressed about its excesses. The key merit of the book is that it then seeks to unpack these assumptions and to ask bigger questions about the motivations of the actors involved in it and the roles it plays for parliament.

Punch & Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, was released by Biteback Publishing in May. 

About the author

Ruxandra Serban is a PhD candidate at UCL, where her research investigates the relationship between prime ministers and legislatures in parliamentary democracies. She has also co-authored a chapter on parliamentary questions in the UK Parliament with Stephen Bates and Peter Kerr: ‘Questioning the Government’, in C. Leston-Bandeira and L. Thompson (eds.) Exploring Parliament, Oxford: Oxford University Press.