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Prime minister’s questions (PMQs)

What is PMQs and how does it work?

Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons chamber at the despatch box.
Rishi Sunak has missed a higher proportion of PMQs (12.5%) than his predecessors, including five sessions missed because of foreign travel.

What is prime minister’s questions?

Questions to the prime minister (often referred to as PMQs) are held at midday on every Wednesday that the House of Commons sits. 34 The exception being the first Wednesday of most parliamentary sessions, when it will not have been possible for MPs to have given two days’ notice of their questions.  PMQs is the only opportunity most MPs have to question the prime minister directly about government business.

PMQs is scheduled to last for half an hour, although it can go on for significantly longer if the Speaker wishes. Under John Bercow’s speakership, sessions tended to run for significantly longer – occasionally for nearly twice the usual length.

Who asks questions to the prime minister?

Demand for asking a question at PMQs is high. MPs wishing to ask a question usually enter a ballot, which closes on the Thursday before each PMQs. After the ballot closes, 15 MPs are selected at random – in a process known as ‘the shuffle’ – and their names printed on the order paper for the following Wednesday.

The first question is asked by the MP at the top of the order paper. If this MP is from an opposition party, the next question will be from a backbencher from the governing party – usually the highest-ranked such MP on the order paper. This reflects the convention that the Speaker calls MPs from alternate sides of the House.

These initial exchanges are normally followed by questions from the leader of the opposition, who can ask up to six questions. They do not have to use all their questions, nor ask them consecutively. As leader of the opposition, William Hague often used less than his allocation – a technique that prevents the prime minister from using their sixth response to deliver a pre-prepared political point. 35 Bush S, ‘William Hague’s PMQs are lionised at Westminster – but his approach has been forgotten’, New Statesman, 2 December 2020,

After another question from an MP from the governing party, the Speaker calls the leader of the second largest opposition party (currently Stephen Flynn, the Westminster leader of the SNP) who is permitted to ask two questions. The Speaker will then call other MPs, sticking as closely as possible to the list of names in the order paper, while still alternating between the government and opposition benches.

Why do MPs stand up and sit down during PMQs? 

The Speaker has complete discretion in deciding who to call and for how long to keep calling MPs. They can call on MPs not listed in the order paper, with these MPs indicating a desire to speak by rising in their places (known as ‘bobbing’). The Speaker often calls on these MPs if the order paper contains too few MPs from a particular side of the House.

Ahead of PMQs, MPs can make their case for a question to the Speaker. However, the Speaker has suggested applications to be called at PMQs should only be made in ‘exceptional circumstances’, like the tragic death of a constituent. 36 Rules of Behaviour and Courtesies of the House of Commons

Does the prime minister know what questions they will be asked at PMQs? 

The prime minister rarely receives formal notice of the questions MPs intend to ask, but may be given some advanced warning through informal means.

MPs are required to give notice of the questions they wish to ask ministers. Usually this involves tabling a specific question, which is then printed on the order paper. For PMQs, however, it has become conventional for almost all MPs to ask the prime minister ‘if he will list his official engagements’ for the day.

Only the first MP on the order paper actually asks this question. The prime minister gives a standard response, that they ‘had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others’; the first MP then asks a supplementary question. Subsequent MPs ask only their supplementary rather than repeating the tabled question, removing the need for the prime minister to repeat their initial answer. 37 HC Deb (1997–98), 294, c 702,

The ’engagement’ question is deliberately broad, to ensure that supplementaries can cover almost any subject. It also ensures MPs can ask topical questions, rather than being restricted to a subject selected almost a week in advance. 38 Historically, it also prevented the prime minister from transferring the question to the relevant departmental minister, although prime ministers have long since stopped this practice.

Above all, this allows MPs to keep the topic of their question secret from the prime minister. Testing the prime minister’s grasp of the whole breadth of government policy and world events has become part of the drama of PMQs. In practice, many MPs will reveal their question in advance, allowing the prime minister to prepare his answer (see below).

Occasionally MPs may choose to table a closed question instead, allowing the prime minister formal notice of the question. 39 Such as ‘Whether the Government plan to intervene in the running of children’s services by Herefordshire Council.’ (Sir Bill Wiggin, 20 March 2024, HC Deb (2023–24), 747, c. 930  In these cases any supplementaries must be on the same topic.

How does the prime minister usually prepare for PMQs? 

Preparation for PMQs begins on the preceding Thursday. The prime minister’s parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) attempt to find out what MPs who have been successful in the shuffle are planning to ask.  

Civil servants in Downing Street begin to prepare a briefing pack for the prime minister. This includes background information and draft answers for each MP on the order paper, prepared by government departments and signed off by special advisers. Where the PPSs cannot find out what an MP will ask (usually the case for opposition MPs), the pack will include scripts on all likely questions. The briefing pack also includes detailed policy briefs, prepared over the course of the week. A political section, containing pre-prepared attack lines and additional research, will have been prepared by special advisers and party officials.

Prime ministers spend several hours a week preparing for PMQs. This typically involves a few hours in the evenings early in the week, and the whole of Wednesday morning. This preparation time and meetings are an opportunity to test out attack lines, write jokes and role play potential questions. 

What happens if the prime minister can’t attend PMQs?

Prime ministers sometimes miss PMQs because of official responsibilities, often including foreign travel or international summits. They may also miss PMQs for personal reasons: Boris Johnson missed a session in April 2020 after the birth of his son.

Rishi Sunak has missed a higher proportion of PMQs (12.5%) than his predecessors, including five sessions missed because of foreign travel.

When this happens, another senior minister answers on behalf of the prime minister. The choice of replacement is a matter for the government and varies from instance to instance. In recent decades it has been common for the deputy prime minister to stand in (where such a figure exists), but at other times the replacement has been the first secretary of state, minister for the Cabinet Office, foreign secretary or leader of the Commons.

When the prime minister is absent, it is also common for a shadow cabinet minister to take the place of the leader of the opposition. 

How does the Speaker keep order at PMQs? 

PMQs is one of the most well attended events of the parliamentary week and is often perceived as too loud, too aggressive and too party-political for effective scrutiny. 40 Hansard Society, Tuned in or Turned off? (2013)

The Speaker has responsibility for maintaining order during question time. When the Speaker stands, MPs must be silent. Where this does not happen, the Speaker will often resort to their informal powers of persuasion, including rebuking a disruptive MP by name or warning members that they will not be called for a question if their behaviour falls short of expectations.

In the event of more serious disruption, the Speaker may order an MP to withdraw from the House. This is done where their behaviour is ‘grossly disorderly’. 41 House of Commons Standing Order No. 43   For instance, Paul Bristow, a Conservative MP, was ordered to leave PMQs in 2023 for repeatedly heckling Keir Starmer. 42 HC Deb (2022–23), 733, c. 282,  If the MP refuses to leave, the Speaker may ‘name’ them: the House then immediately votes on whether to suspend the member. 43 House of Commons Standing Order No. 44  Alba MPs Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill were suspended for five days in 2022 for defying the chair after staging a protest during PMQs and refusing to leave the chamber. 44 HC Deb (2021–22), 718, c. 332,

How has PMQs changed over time? 

Before 1961, questions to the prime minister were treated similarly to questions to other ministers. Oral questions could be asked to any minister on any day that they were present in the chamber and questions to the prime minister came to be placed near the end of the notice list.

Reforms introduced in 1902 limited the time for questions, meaning that those to the prime minister were often not reached. In an attempt to resolve this, questions to the prime minister were fixed at number 45 in the list from 1904. The volume of questions continued to rise, however, and by 1959 this was proving insufficient. The procedure committee recommended that PMQs should be taken during two 15-minute sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to be held at 3.15pm (rather than after a particular number of questions). The government accepted this recommendation in July 1961.

This arrangement stood until 1997, when the new Blair government combined the two sessions into one half-hour session, held at 3pm on a Wednesday. It was moved to the current midday slot following changes to Commons sitting times in 2005.

House of Commons
Institute for Government

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