So every Wednesday, at 12pm sharp, David Cameron arrives in the chamber for the event that is Prime Minister's Questions (or PMQs). The weekly session has been described as a pantomime, charade and worse. For those who have tried to sit through it, it's not always clear how the event is meant to work and why they are shouting all the time.
So here I will try to explain, if not exactly why it is like it is, at least how it is meant to work.
First - who gets to ask questions?
- Leader of the Opposition (currently Jeremy Corbyn) - always gets to ask 6 questions
- Leader of the 3rd biggest party (currently Angus Robertson of the SNP) - always gets to ask 2 questions
- Back Bench MPs. This is drawn at random. MPs need to 'table a question' in advance which is done either online or by visiting the Table Office.
What can they ask about?
- The first question is always about the PM's engagements from a backbench MP. This then allows the MP to ask a supplementary question which can be about anything they want.
- So in theory, an MP can ask anything they want. However, in practice, MPs will try to use their question wisely. For back benchers in particular, they may try to give their question a local twist to speak for their constituents. This works best when they can link a local question to an issue of national significance at the time.
Does Cameron know what he will be asked in advance?
- No he doesn't. However, the topics are unlikely to be a big surprise for the PM and he is extensively briefed by Government departments in advance.
Does he have to answer the question?
- He has to say something... But you might notice that he often fails to answer the question directly. The person asking the question can't challenge this. The leader of the opposition is the only MP who can come back with further questions.
Why all the shouting and jeering?
- MPs are not allowed to applaud in the chamber so have to find other ways to vocally support their colleagues. While this might explain the calls of 'here here' it doesn't help with understanding the wall of noise that is experienced in PMQs. I'm afraid I have no explanation beyond playground politics (though the children I know behave much better!)
Is PMQs fit for purpose?
- I'll have to leave that up to you to decide. Corbyn has made it clear that he wishes to change the way PMQs is conducted. Only time will tell if he can succeed.