Marking 60 years of Prime Minister’s Questions. A brief history

By Tim Le Couilliard

Prime Ministers Question’s, or PMQs as they are referred to, are the centrepiece of British politics in the House of Commons, and this week marks the 60th anniversary of the first-ever session. PMQs are an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition and pre-agreed other MPs to grill the Prime Minister on all the goings-on in government. Taking place every Wednesday at 12pm for 30-minutes whilst Parliament is sitting, they are confrontations that have brought out some memorable moments, and some moments that both Prime Ministers and Leaders of Opposition would rather forget.

PMQs encapsulate a lot of what certain people enjoy about British politics, with the government on one side, the opposition on the other, debating (or arguing) over a particular policy matter. It is almost unique that a country’s leader is put up on the stand, week-in-week-out, to take questions from their peers, and for some, it gives a romantic impression of British Democracy – “hear, hear”, some would say! Pre-Covid, PMQ were a lively affair, with jeers and cheers, much like a gladiator fight; although a socially-distanced House of Commons has rather taken out much of the atmosphere. Covid or no-Covid, some consider PMQs to be childish, and that they are no more useful than soundbite politics – with cutting insult or clever one-liners that would look good on a politician’s social media feed, but with no real substance.

Described by Tony Blair in his memoirs as “the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience”, it was Blair who, in one of his first acts as Prime Minister, amended the timetable of PMQs from two 15-minute sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to one 30-minute session on Wednesdays. Leaders of both sides have dreaded PMQs, with Harold Macmillan admitting he would feel ill upon entering the chamber, and Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’, not known for her timidness, saying that she would barely eat before a PMQs. It is considered that before the confrontations between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in 1965, PMQs were rather more orderly – and it is only the hostility between the two that led to the practice of confrontational PMQs.

They are occasions that Prime Ministers and their advisers will prep for days in advance of. This prep will often lead to well-considered jokes, retorts, and avenues of attack, but there are, of course those moments that blindside even the best prepared Prime Ministers. With plenty of ‘gotcha’ moments to pick from, below is a select list of occasions that stand out in the long history of Prime Minister’s Questions, some of which politicos (probably) still quote to one another today.

  • 4th September 2019 – Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Corbyn in his first PMQs. “Jeremy Corbyn thinks our friends are in The Kremlin, and in Tehran, and in Caracas – and I think he’s Caracas!”
  • 11th February 2015 – Ed Miliband to David Cameron: “He can’t get away from it, he’s a dodgy Prime Minister, surrounded by dodgy donors”.
  • 4th February 2015 – David Cameron vs Ed Miliband (and Ed Balls) “His shadow chancellor was asked on the television could he think of one single business leader. Do you know what he said? He said, “Bill Somebody”. Bill somebody isn’t a person, bill somebody is Labour’s policy”
  •  2015 – David Cameron vs Stephen Pound, following the Conservative’s “Beer and Bingo” advert: “I am sure the right honourable gentleman enjoys a game of bingo; it’s the only time he ever gets close to No 10!”
  •  
  • 17th December 2013 – David Cameron, upon seeing Ed Ball’s downward finger gesture, “oh we have a new hand gesture from the shadow chancellor. I would have thought that after the briefings in today’s papers, the hand gesture for the shadow chancellor should be bye-bye” and “it doesn’t need to be Christmas to know when you’re sitting next to a turkey”.
  • 15th December 2010 – David Cameron vs Ed Miliband, “there are moments when I think I am up against Basil Brush.”
  • 8th December 2010 – David Cameron quoting his favourite The Smiths songs, which went down well.
  • 7th December 2000 – Tony Blair vs Ian Duncan Smith, “If I can change TV programme for a moment. I know he’s very keen at summing up policy in six words, well how about this – ‘you are the weakest link, goodbye’.”
  • 25th April 1995 and January 1997 – John Major vs Tony Blair. Tony Blair, “There’s one very big difference. I lead my party, [Major] follows his” and “weak, weak, weak”.
  • 30th October 1990 – Margaret Thatcher’s famous “No, No, No” speech in response to proposed further European integration.

Today’s PMQs was without soundbite, although Boris Johnson was noticeably more phased by Keir Starmer’s line of questioning than normal, with the topic focused firmly on the Government’s response to racism in football. But do not think that today’s PMQs will be the last of that; Labour, and many others, will continue to bang the drum for weeks, and months to come.