In British politics, prime minister’s questions is one of the most difficult tests of public speaking and debate skills that politicians are likely to face. The gladiatorial atmosphere is set by the loud, raucous benches behind the party leaders, and further enhanced by the oppositional layout of the house of commons chamber.
After two years of negotiations, the Speaker introduced the first PMQs as “an experiment” on 18 July 1961. It has since become a regular feature, albeit it to the often intense dislike of many British prime ministers.
In his memoirs, Tony Blair called it “the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience” of his political life.
David Cameron has said of the weekly ordeal, “it’s nerve-wracking walking into quite a hostile chamber, knowing you could be asked anything. But it can also be good fun. In fact, it kind of sums up British politics perfectly – a robust democracy with a sense of humour.”
The experience can prove too much for some; as put by Sir Menzies Campbell, “was I alone in finding that half hour such exquisite torture? I was gratified to learn from Tony Blair and David Cameron that their emotions were exactly the same as mine. Since Thatcher, I don’t think any leader would not cheerfully abolish it if they could.”
Often dismissed by many as political theatre, PMQs can define the public perception of prime ministers and party leaders depending on their performance and their ability to speak confidently and accurately to the issues of the day, as raised on most occasions by a hostile opposition and awkward backbenchers.
- “I count my blessings that I don’t have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose to nose with the opposition.” President George Bush Snr (1991)
- In 1978, sound broadcasting of the Commons began: PMQs was carried live by the BBC until June 1980, and in 1989, televised coverage of the Commons commenced.
- Footage from PMQs cannot be used for humorous purposes on such shows as Have I Got News For You.
- PMQs is a popular across the world: in the US, C-SPAN broadcasts it live.