50 years of PMQs
No other parliament has anything like Prime Minister's Questions. Chris Moncrieff, who has covered it from the start, gives his verdict
Sunday 17 July 2011
The blood and thunder, the mud-slinging and the general pandemonium and tumult – so disliked by Speaker John Bercow – of today's Prime Minister's question time is a far cry from the days when it all began, on 18 July 1961.
Don't get me wrong: it was never genteel. I well remember those days in the early 1960s, when Harold Macmillan and Hugh Gaitskell were the original combatants: the sessions were lively, but by no means so frenetic and raucous as today. You could say it was more civilised – but not half so much fun.
Well, it is not supposed to be fun, I hear you say. But for the onlooker, especially those of us who witness it week in and week out from the press gallery, it provides better entertainment than the London Palladium. Mr Bercow says the public hate it. He is wrong. They love it.
I have sat through Prime Minister's question time sessions from that day to this, and watched how they have changed, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes very abruptly.
The most obvious change was the advent of television cameras. Those who feared this would encourage the self-publicity seekers to engage in histrionics were proved right. And television also spawned the soundbite: a carefully crafted seductive phrase designed purely for that evening's news bulletins.
I recall Macmillan's early jousts with Gaitskell. The Conservative Prime Minister appeared languid and laid back, downplaying every crisis, which you would expect of a man who described the sacking of seven cabinet ministers in 1962, the so-called Night of the Long Knives, as "a little local difficulty". But, in reality, as he once admitted to a bunch of us reporters, he was so nervous that he felt physically sick before each session.
For reporters, one of the most difficult periods was the 1970s when Harold Wilson and Edward Heath set about each other. Wilson's delivery, in particular, was a shorthand writer's nightmare. He spoke like a machine gun.
Immediately after these furious exchanges, a lot of us piled out of the press gallery and got into a huddle outside, going through our notes. Usually, between us, we managed to get everything said, but occasionally there was a word that eluded us all. In that case, I am ashamed to say, someone would shout: "Let's make him say..." And we would choose a word to replace it which seemed most appropriate in the context. We all inserted it in our notes. We did this scores of times, and yet we had not a single complaint. In those days, there were no tapes to check the words.
And with no electronic aids to hand, you had to rely on your shorthand, making Prime Minister's questions exciting but nerve-racking, too. The object, especially for an agency reporter, was to do, say, five minutes in the gallery, rush out and dictate, without delay, straight from your notebook to a copytaker on one of the phones outside.
When you had, for instance, out of the blue Wilson attacking the dock strikers as "a tightly knit group of politically motivated men", you knew you could not afford to get even a syllable wrong.
Alec Douglas-Home as Prime Minister inherited Macmillan's suavity at the dispatch box and certainly impressed me with his handling of the aggressive Wilson, despite his upbringing in the drawing-room atmosphere of the Lords. Jim Callaghan, who made no secret of his dislike of question time, often belied his soubriquet of Sunny Jim.
Probably the two best operators were Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Both of them achieved total dominance of the chamber. Mrs Thatcher, figuratively speaking, would, week after week, chew up Neil Kinnock, her main adversary, and spit him out.
Blair's performance was invariably that of an Oscar-winning actor. William Hague once told me how, as opposition leader, he tried to fluster Blair, whose briefing notes were in alphabetical order, depending on the subject. Hague would raise a subject beginning with the letter A and, in the same question, raise another subject beginning with a letter way down in the alphabet. We often wondered why Blair was feverishly going from one end of his notes to the other as Hague tried (invariably unsuccessfully) to catch him out.
Today David Cameron and Ed Miliband maintain the tradition while we in the press gallery watch with satisfaction Speaker Bercow's futile efforts to control the racket.
Chris Moncrieff is the Press Association's former political editor and now special correspondent. He has been reporting on Parliament for 50 years
Gladiators of the Commons arena
Labour leader, 1983-92
"PMQs is a cross between the ballet and a bear pit – the former because of the choreography, the latter because of the yelping and roaring. The face-to-face clashes can give useful vitality to democratic politics, and Ed Miliband's calm against David Cameron's nasty apoplexy is very effective. But the rumbustious atmosphere also has disadvantages: it conveys the impression of testosterone-driven politics (and is not, therefore, a faithful representation of the House of Commons), and it can deter those MPs who are serious, but not politically muscular, from making interventions."
Labour leader, 1994-2007 PM 1997-2007
"I became convinced that PMQs twice a week was an enormous amount of time for a debating tournament. Statements were very different and I made more of them than my predecessors. But once I changed it to once a week for half an hour, and then moved it to midday, not 3pm, it freed up an entire day and a half of time."
Conservative leader, 1997-2001
"I started against the apparently unstoppable Tony Blair in 1997. He had right-wing newspapers supporting him and people from the last Conservative government, which gave me quite a dilemma. For the next four years I found a mixture of hard-hitting questions and humour to be most effective. I didn't always look forward to it, but I found that, with the cheers of your party behind you, you do enjoy being able to hold the Government to account."
Lib Dem leader, 1999-2006
"What may seem flat or drowned out in the chamber can come over as the sole, sane voice in the asylum to the real world outside watching on televsion. Iraq gave me my opportunity. We were asking the awkward questions of Tony Blair that the Tories could not. And the House wanted to hear his answers. At one stage I felt dispirited, until a senior cabinet minister approached me and encouraged me to persist. 'You're asking the questions half the Cabinet would love to ask – but can't.'"
Conservative leader, 2003-05
"Tony Blair was master of the art and usually got the better of me, although I did have my moments. During an exchange about educational opportunity, I reminded him that I was a grammar school boy and needed no lessons about giving those from unprivileged backgrounds the chance to make the most of their potential."
Sir Menzies Campbell
Lib Dem leader, 2006-07
"Half an hour of the bear garden has become the thermometer for the whole political week. 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."
Lib Dem deputy leader, 2006-10
"I was lucky to have rich material in the wake of the Northern Rock bank run and a Saudi Arabian royal visit. I sensed that people were groping for words to describe Gordon Brown's sudden fall from all-dominating competence to fumbling inadequacy."
Conservative leader, 2006-today
"If you're Prime Minister, it's a great way to check what's going on in each department. Believe me, come Wednesday morning, you want to know anything and everything. Let's just say there are more fun things to be doing. 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."
Labour deputy leader, 2007-today, one of only two women – the other is Margaret Thatcher – to have taken questions
"You cannot hide. You have got to have the courage of your convictions. If you do not, PMQs will expose it. It is quite an extraordinary feeling because everybody is banked up in front of you, and banked up behind you – the sheer physical dimension of it makes it feel like a gladiatorial contest."
Labour leader, 2010-today
"It gives me the privilege of pressing David Cameron for direct answers on the issues people care about. The best and simplest piece of advice I've ever had on what I should ask came from my wife, Justine: she told me to ask the questions that people in the country want answering. It seemed like pretty good advice, so I try to follow that every week."
50 points of order...
1. On 16 December 1959, Parliament debates the findings of the procedure committee that recommended establishing PMQs.
2. After two years of negotiations, the Speaker introduced the first PMQs as "an experiment" on 18 July 1961.
3. The first question was asked by Labour's Fenner Brockway: "To which minister will the United Kingdom ambassador to the Republic of South Africa be responsible?"
4. The experiment was deemed a success and twice-weekly sessions started in October 1961.
5. Harold Macmillan was reportedly enjoying one bibulous lunch so much he refused to attend. Confronted by an agitated official he said: "Tell Rab Butler to do it, and send up another port."
6. PMQs turned into a much more personal affair in 1964 when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. According to the historian Peter Hennessy, the late Alan Watkins "observed that [PMQs] began its long decline into parliamentary rough house during the 12 months when Wilson enjoyed such sport at the expense of the noble stag at bay in the person of the former earl [Douglas-Home] across the dispatch box."
7. In 1972 the PM, Edward Heath, came under fire from Labour MPs over unemployment rising above one million. The Speaker, Selwyn Lloyd, was forced to suspend the session for 11 minutes.
8. Heath in 1974 asked Wilson to "express the view that for the miners to choose a national strike cannot be in the national interest".
9. James Callaghan in 1977 accepted a Commons recommendation to take all questions himself, ruling out ministers.
10. Callaghan hated PMQs – describing the then twice-weekly encounters as a "complete waste of time".
11. In 1978, sound broadcasting of the Commons began: PMQs was carried live by BBC until June 1980.
12. Margaret Thatcher's first questioner was Labour MP Stanley Clinton-Davis, who asked: "In replying to all questions, will she please not be too strident?"
13. Edward Heath complained in 1982 about not being consulted over Mrs Thatcher's plans for an inquiry into the Falklands war.
14. In 1983, Thatcher turned on Denis Healey: "The right hon gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit? Could not take it?... Frightened! Right now, inflation is lower than it has been for 13 years – a record which the right hon gentleman could not begin to touch."
15. John Biffen, who sometimes stood in for Thatcher, said that taking PMQs was exciting but that he felt "like the office boy in the boss's chair".
16. In 1989, televised coverage of the Commons began.
17. In 1989, Thatcher missed PMQs to meet the Soviet leader. John Wakeham brought the House down with his explanation: "My right honourable friend told the Leader of the Opposition that she would not be able to be here this afternoon because she has made herself available to President Gorbachev."
18. In 1989, Labour leader Neil Kinnock asked Thatcher whether she would sack her economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters, who had clashed with the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. Thatcher replied: "Advisers advise and ministers decide. Ministers have decided, and we have an excellent economic policy." Sir Alan resigned.
19. Thatcher on Lawson: "The Chancellor's position is unassailable." Lawson resigned a week later.
20. Following Thatcher's resignation, John Major rose to his first question. "Resign!" shouted Labour's Dennis Skinner.
21. In 1991, President George Bush Snr said: "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."
22. Betty Boothroyd in 1992 became the first female Speaker.
23. In 1994, PMQs was cancelled after the death of John Smith, the Leader of the Opposition.
24. Lib Dem MP Paul Tyler challenged Major whether his Government was sleaze-free, oblivious to the fact that the PM had already launched an inquiry into the behaviour of Tory MPs.
25. Responding to an accusation by Tony Blair about his leadership, Major responded: "I will not make a judgement that is crucial to the constitutional and economic future of this country until I see the economic circumstances of the day – and, frankly, only a dimwit would ask me to."
26. Blair's 1995 putdown to Major: "There is one very big difference –I lead my party, he follows his."
27. Skinner frequently tormented Major. One interchange referred to the PM's "lame duck" status: "Hobble, hobble, quack, quack."
28. Weeks before Labour's victory in 1997, Blair asked Major: "Is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister of our country cannot even urge his party to support his own position? Weak, weak, weak, weak. I tell him that his weakness and his failure of leadership are the reason his Government are the incompetent mess they are."
29. Speaker Boothroyd urged Lib Dem Simon Hughes to make his point: "This is so time-consuming. Come on, Mr Hughes: spit it out. "
30. Blair axed the twice-weekly PMQs a week after the election. Instead of two 15-minute sessions, there was one half-hour session on Wednesdays.
31. When Wales First Minister Alun Michael resigned in 2000, Blair told PMQs: "After all, the fun and games down at the Assembly are over... "
32. PMQs first broadcast live on the internet in 2002.
33. The morning after war was declared on Iraq, Tony Blair said: "I know that everyone in this House wishes our armed forces well, wishes that, if there is conflict, it will be over as quickly and as successfully as possible."
34. New Tory leader Michael Howard in 2003 told Blair: "Two questions asked, neither answered: not a very good start, I'm afraid."
35. Howard attacked Blair over tuition fees: "Let me make it clear: this grammar school boy will take no lessons from that public school boy on the importance of children from less privileged backgrounds gaining access to university."
36. Blair was pelted with condoms containing purple flour flung from the public gallery by Fathers 4 Justice.
37. In his first PMQs as Conservative leader, David Cameron needled Blair: "I want to talk about the future. He was the future once." Blair grinned through gritted teeth.
38. After a victory speech promising to do away with Punch and Judy politics, Cameron chided Hilary Armstrong: "That's the problem with these exchanges: the Chief Whip on the Labour side shouting like a child. Is she finished? Have you finished? Right..."
39. Singer Shakira, in London as UN Goodwill Ambassador to speak to Chancellor Gordon Brown, appeared in the public gallery to watch PMQs as a guest of Labour MP Tom Watson.
40. Blair's final appearance: "This is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is on occasions the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes."
41. Vince Cable ridiculed Gordon Brown over the donations scandal. "The House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos."
42. Harriet Harman stood in for Gordon Brown for the first time in 2008 and became only the second woman, after Thatcher, to answer Prime Minister's Questions.
43. Ridiculing Harman for wearing a stab-vest in her constituency, William Hague, the Tory deputy leader, said that if she dressed appropriately whenever she toured a building site or a factory, "presumably when she goes to a cabinet meeting, she goes dressed as a clown".
44. Brown, responding to Cameron over the global financial crisis in 2008, said: "We not only saved the world" – before correcting himself to say "saved the banks".
45. PMQs was suspended in February 2009 following the death of David Cameron's son, Ivan.
46. Gordon Brown, who had lost a daughter, declared: "Politics can sometimes divide us. But there is a common human bond that unites us in sympathy and compassion at times of trial and in support for each other at times of grief."
47. Ed Miliband referred to memos published by WikiLeaks that David Cameron and William Hague were "children of Thatcher". Cameron replied: "I'd rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown."
48. Cameron, heckled by Labour in April 2011, said in an aside to Angela Eagle, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury: "Calm down dear."
49. Footage from PMQs cannot be used for humorous purposes on such shows as Have I Got News For You.
50. PMQs is a huge hit across the world: in the US, C-SPAN broadcasts it live.
Research by Jane Merrick, Brian Brady, John Rentoul and Nada Issa
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