Image courtesy of flickr user Herry Lawford

Reading Prime Minister’s Questions

By Paula Keaveney

The last thing the weekly PMQs joust is about is answers.

Frankly if an MP wants an answer, a written question, a letter to the relevant department or a session in the good old fashioned House of Commons library is the way to go (that is if Doctor Google hasn’t helped in the meantime).

But that doesn’t mean Prime Minister’s Questions is pointless. Far from it.

Careers can be made or broken, campaigns boosted, publicity gained and issues pushed up the agenda.

It is easy to watch PMQs and see it simply as a contest between two leaders. What is more interesting is the type of question coming from everyone else. I’ve made an MP motivation list, based on literally years of watching this every week.

Some MPs have an automatic right to ask questions. Currently this is Jeremy Corbyn and Angus Robertson of the SNP. Corbyn gets six. Robertson gets two. Others who want to take part have two choices. They can send their name in ahead of time, and hope it comes up high on the list. Or they can hope to ‘catch the speaker’s eye’ and ask a supplementary. (Catching the speaker’s eye involves a lot of bobbing up and down.  The late Patsy Calton MP once remarked that it was excellent exercise for thigh muscles!).

The MPs chosen for the list will appear on the Commons order paper. They don’t need to submit an actual question. It is assumed they are enquiring about the Prime Minister’s ‘engagements of the day’ and then asking a supplementary. Of course, in many cases the Prime Minister can guess the question, and officials will have provided copious information to deal with eventualities.

There may also have been rehearsals. Former No 10 Communications Director Sir Craig Oliver, in Unleashing Demons, tells us of the regular David Cameron preparation sessions in which Michael Gove would assist with questions. Sometimes MPs will let No 10 know what they are going to say. Sometimes a whip will have provided ‘helpful questions’.

So, what are the motivations behind those questions:

  1. The press release. Raising a local issue with the Prime Minister, whether the reply is helpful or not, is a guaranteed press release in some areas. These are usually easy to spot as they are about local issues or causes that the Prime Minister can’t possibly know everything about.
  2. The campaign. A PMQ is one of many ways of promoting and continuing a particular campaign, whether about UK or overseas issues. Jeremy Corbyn has done this, for example about Yemen.
  3. The ‘giss a job’. Questions designed to elicit praise of the Government, or of a particular initiative, are a way of showing loyalty and ‘soundness’.
  4. The challenge. A good PMQ can expose a weakness or throw the PM onto the defensive. Opposition politicians, and sometimes internal opponents, make good use of these.
  5. The commitment request. MPs often ask the PM to visit an area or to take part in a meeting. It can act as a way of reinforcing an agreement or eliciting a statement of support. Norman Lamb MP used this recently by asking the PM to meet a cross-party group interested in health.
  6. The helpful interjection. If your leader appears on the ropes, a helpful question gives time to recover.
  7. The ‘holding to account’. A series of questions on a particular topic can be a way of being seen to hold the executive to account.

The theatre of Prime Minister’s questions is loud and potentially very scary. It is a test of some MPs’ mettle. A good performance can mark a politician out as one to watch. A poor performance may prevent future promotion. In fact, Conservative whips keep notes on performance in the chamber.

PMQs is a good communications opportunity for a confident MP. But if you represent a campaign, and one of your MP supporters can raise your issue at PMQs, the coverage, and the follow up could be hugely useful for you too. Worth a thought!

Paula Keaveney MCIPR is Senior Lecturer in Public Relations and Politics at Edge Hill University.

Prime Minister’s Questions is covered live on the Daily Politics on BBC 2 at 12 noon on a Wednesday (during a sitting). An account of what was said is also published Hansard, the official proceedings of the Houses of Parliament.

Image courtesy of flickr user Herry Lawford

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