Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The new Prime Minister's Questions

In ancient Rome, when a triumph general returned home after a great victory, he was paraded through the streets while being cheered by excited crowds. To make sure the adoration of the masses didn't go to his head, a slave would always be placed near the general and repeat the words "hominem the memento" (remember that you are just a man). Today, the UK has a similar procedure for keeping its political leaders grounded – Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs).

Members of the government were required to answers questions in Parliament long before the office of Prime Minister was invented. But Prime Ministers have only had to regularly answer questions in parliament since relatively recently, only the last 50 years in fact.

Tomorrow David Cameron will take part in PMQs for the first time as Prime Minister. Of course, he is used to the scenario having been Leader of the Opposition for five years, but he was the one asking the questions then, now he has to answer them.

During the election campaign, many Americans watching on the other side of the Atlantic were surprised to hear that the UK had never before had live TV debates. "But you have TV debates all the time" they said, "We've seen them on C-SPAN".

The Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (or C-SPAN for short) shows live coverage of Prime Minister's Questions in the US, where it gets very respectable ratings. Americans seem bemused as well as a little jealous of the fact that every week when Parliament is sitting, the British Prime Minister is summoned to the House of Commons where he or she must answer questions from ordinary MPs on any subject they like. There have even been calls for the US President to go to Congress and answer questions as a direct result of Americans seeing PMQs.

Strangely, the British public seem far less interested. The ratings for PMQs are very low, especially in comparison to the TV debates during the last election. The atmosphere of the House of Commons is inherently rowdy and the Prime Minister is free to answer the question however he or she sees fit, which normally means evading the question. The timing doesn't aid public interest either; Prime Minister's Questions starts at the strike of noon on Wednesdays and lasts thirty minutes, during which time most people are in work or having lunch or both.

Tomorrows PMQs might get slightly more interest as for one week only they'll take place at 3pm, at which point we'll see how good our new Prime Minister is at answering questions for a change. Historically, it takes some time for a new PM to get used to the ordeal of PMQs. Margaret Thatcher was famously very poor when she first became Prime Minister, but over her many years in power she grew to become the master of the Commons. Tony Blair's first years at the government dispatch box were difficult as he was against Leader of the Opposition, William Hague who had been a prominent member of the Oxford Union and was an expert debater. During his time, Gordon Brown made several notorious mistakes, such as accidently saying he had 'saved the world', and when asked about allegations he'd been bullying his staff, Mr. Brown just replied "any complaints are dealt with in the usual manner".

It should not be forgotten that PMQs is an incredibly stressful and difficult task for any Prime Minister. In the past some have excelled and some have faltered, tomorrow David Cameron will face acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, as well as all the other MPs, and we will find out if he is just a man.

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