What are Prime Minister’s Questions and why is everyone bobbing up and down?
PMQs are held every Wednesday for half an hour. It is the opportunity for MPs to put questions to the Prime Minister and to hold the government to account over their actions. MPs use PMQs to ask questions about national issues and often use it as an opportunity to mention issues affecting their constituency.
MPs wishing to ask a question must enter it into a ballot system.
Entries are selected at random and put at random onto the Order Paper which the Speaker of the House calls out. The question is asked; the Prime Minister gives an answer.
Tradition dictates that PMQs starts with a question about the Prime Minister’s engagements. This is called Question Number One.
The Prime Minister will usually reply;
“This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.”
The first MP to ask a question will ask “Question Number One” then follow that with their own query.
This question is usually followed by the leader of the opposition. The opposition leader (currently Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party) is allowed six questions in total. The opposition leader is the only person allowed to come back with further questions.
Those not selected for the Order Paper can attempt to “catch the eye” of the speaker to ask an extra question. This is achieved by standing and sitting immediately before the Prime Minister makes his answer. This is known as “bobbing”. There was us thinking they’d just had an electric shock.
The format of Prime Minister’s Questions has changed over the years. In 1881 a time-limit for questions was set. Then in 1961 PMQs were made permanent as two 15 minute slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister he changed the format again to the 30 minute slot on a Wednesday which we have today.
Prime Minister’ Questions has been criticised as being childish. MPs from both sides cheer their leaders and bray at the opposing side. The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition usually trade thinly veiled insults.
The speaker of the House John Bercow has called PMQs “embarrassing”. The “histrionics and cacophony of noise” meant several MPs had said they would not attend Prime Minister’s Questions.
In the past the behaviour was much more civilised. In a speech to the House John Bercow notes that “while exchanges could be lively, contemporary accounts do not record them being remotely raucous.” Former speaker Selwyn Lloyd blamed the rise in bad behaviour personal animosity between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.
New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to change Prime Minister’s questions. He wants it to be less “theatrical” and for a real debate to take place.