Why bother with PMQs?

Prime Minister’s Questions is a peculiarly British piece of political theatre where members of parliament get to ask the Prime Minister questions. A clue is in the name.

There is a protocol behind how questions are asked, alternating between the government party and opposition. MPs have to put their questions forward in advance and they are shuffled to provide a degree of randomness to the process. The leader of the opposition gets to ask six questions which they can ask in either one batch of six or two batches of three.

The questions may well be asked but they are very rarely, if ever answered. Usually they are used as a platform for the Prime Minister to spout about whatever topic they wished to cover in the first place, often raising topics which are completely irrelevant to that asked.

This week, for example, Sunak claimed that the country would still be in lockdown if Keir Starmer was PM when responding to a question about meeting with the nursing unions.

I wonder sometimes why we still bother with them. They show the worst of British politics, where insults and cheap laughs take precedence over sensible discussion and scrutiny. The speaker doesn’t help, allowing the Prime Minister to dodge most of the questions raised. The level of noise from the baying hordes probably means that most in the house cannot hear the answers anyway.

Yet PMQs still exist as they play important functions in the way our political system operates. They are one of the rare opportunities for the Prime Minister to be held to account in public and this allows us to judge his or her performance (in whichever way you wish to judge it). They also allow those in government to remind their leader of the things it should be focussed on and the opposition to highlight the things they are not, or are failing at. The clearer the response is from the Prime Minister, the more confident they are in their position, while the more obfuscated it is, shows they are on shaky ground.

The questions are not asked to be answered but to promote or attack the government. The quality or lack of an answer gives away what you really need to know.

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