Of course, the Prime Minister has always answered questions in Parliament and until the Second World War, he was also often Leader of the Commons. But questions could be on any day when the Commons was sitting, as still happens in the far more rumbustious daily question sessions in the Australian Parliament in Canberra. This meant that the Prime Minister had to be on standby.
So to provide more predictability it was agreed to establish specific 15 minute sessions exclusively for the Prime Minister on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. There have been three big changes since then: first, the start of sound broadcasting in 1978; second, the arrival of television cameras in 1989; and third, the consolidation by Tony Blair after the 1997 election of the two sessions into one 30 minute session at noon on Wednesdays. This was primarily to reduce the burden of preparation on the Prime Minister and, despite the protests of traditionalists, neither of Mr Blair’s successors have gone back to twice a week. But has this really added to the accountability of the Prime Minister?
The main virtue of PM questions is simply that the Prime Minister has to appear before the Commons at least once a week in the two-thirds of the year when the Commons is sitting- in addition to statements on summits and major issues. Initially, many questions were closed, that is on specific subjects, but, increasingly, they became open as Opposition leaders and backbench MPs were able to ask about anything. In practice, this has meant whatever has been in the morning’s headlines has been raised. A Prime Minister cannot escape for long, a direct accountability which is envied by those living in presidential systems such as the United States and France where the head of state/government is not directly accountable to the legislature.
PM’s questions can often appear highly partisan and destructive as the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition manoeuvre to secure advantage and the most effective sound bites for the evening news programmes. And there have been memorable one-liners, such as Vince Cable’s description of Gordon Brown’s ‘remarkable transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean’. However, these sessions are less important to ordinary voters – especially those uncommitted to one party or another—than MPs and many political journalists think. (For instance, during my years as a political commentator I would fit my diary round the 30 minute session each Wednesday, now I seldom feel the need to watch it live.) Moreover, as William Hague noted after four years when he often got the better of Tony Blair, this did him no good electorally. Robust and aggressive performances at PM’s questions boost the morale of backbenchers sitting behind you and party supporters in the country and can affect media assessments of a Prime Minister’s image, but they seldom make any impact outside, and can even be negative.
Rather, whether a Prime Minister does well or badly at questions has far more to do with his or her standing outside Westminster than with their performance in the Commons chamber. The latter depends on the former. A Prime Minister who is in a strong position nationally can easily brush aside criticisms from the Leader of the Opposition, and from MPs, where one who is in trouble anyway is vulnerable. Hence, Tony Blair’s famous putdown to Sir John Major in 1995—‘I lead my party, he follows his’—was effective precisely because the Conservative leader was in a weak position with a divided and fractious parliamentary party.
A self-confident Prime Minister who is command of his or her government always has the advantage—not only the last word at PM’s questions but is also at news conferences or at the half-yearly meetings of the Liaison Committee of select committee chairs. These were supposed to provide an opportunity for more sustained ( two and a half hour) and less partisan questioning, but Blair, Brown and Cameron have all emerged unscathed.