The first question directed to the Prime Minister during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), is typically what is called an “open question”. We never hear the actual question, because these are printed on the Order Paper, not asked aloud by the MP. In fact, the only thing the MP who gets to ask the first question will say when the Speaker calls on him or her is “Question number one, Mr. Speaker!”
The question is always the same: “If he will list his official engagements for [that day’s date].” The PM’s reply is also standard: “This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.”
It follows then, that all subsequent questions are actually supplementaries to the first question. And given the deliberate vagueness of the reply, MPs are fairly free to ask the PM a question on almost anything.
Yesterday, however, PMQs started somewhat differently. The first question was not the usual open question asking the PM to list his plans for the day, it was a very specific question. Because of that, the Speaker advised the Chamber that this was a closed question. The question MP Frank Field asked was when the PM next planned to meet the chairman of the Iraq inquiry; and if he would make a statement to the House afterwards. The PM replied that he had no current plans to do so. Mr Field then followed up with a supplementary question:
Mr Field: Given that the current Cabinet Secretary said in 2009 that, in his judgment, the inquiry would take a year and that there will have been two general elections before we see the report, might I ask the Prime Minister to write to the chairman to get a date for when the report will be handed to the Prime Minister and then published?
The Prime Minister: I have written to the inquiry chair and expressed my frustration. However, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not for this Government to interfere in how the inquiry, which was set up with terms of reference by the last Government, is conducting itself. That would not be right. I first voted for an inquiry back in 2006. Labour Members, including the Leader of the Opposition, voted against it in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Even as late as 2009, they were still voting against an inquiry that would have been here, discussed, debated and finished by now.
The Speaker then asked if anyone had any other supplementary on that specific topic; when no one else stood, he moved on to the next question, which was the usual open question asking the PM to list his engagements for the day.
Unfortunately, the official Hansard transcript does not include the Speaker’s comments, but you can see what happened in this video clip of yesterday’s PMQs (it’s the first minute and half of the clip — you don’t have to watch the entirety of PMQs).