Job-sharing PMQs

As expected, Jeremy Corbyn easily won the Labour leadership vote. As part of his plan to “shake up politics”, we also learned that Corbyn plans to step aside during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and let other MPs question the PM.

I have written frequently about how oral Questions work in the UK House of Commons. PMQs differs from the other departmental questions in one important way: it is the only oral questions session where two specific Members are allotted a fixed quota of questions.

The two members in question are the Leader of the Opposition, who gets to ask six questions of the Prime Minister, and, since 1997, the leader of the next largest party, who is allocated two questions. In the last parliament, because the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, where part of the government, this last practice ceased. It has started up again in the current parliament, with the parliamentary leader of the SNP allocated a two-question quota. Not everyone likes this arrangement; PMQs (and all other oral questions to ministers) is supposed to be for backbenchers. Speaker Bercow has commented that the party leaders already take up too much time; they are responsible for a third of all the questions asked and by his estimation, between 50 to 60% of the total time consumed. In a speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies delivered in 2010, Bercow noted that while “[T]he very fact of a coalition administration has opened up a little more space for backbenchers as the two questions previously reserved for the Leader of the Liberal Democrats have been opened up to them”, more could be done:

If the session is to remain 30-minutes long, the next Leader of the Opposition could usefully ask whether he or she truly needed as many as six questions of the Prime Minister in order to land a blow or whether, in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, three or four would do instead. Arguably, however, a 45-minute or even 60-minute session conducted with mutual respect would be a huge and welcome advance on the status quo. In such circumstances, the current number of questions allocated to the Leader of the Opposition would be more appropriate.

Which brings us back to Corbyn’s quota-rotation idea. It isn’t 100% clear to me if Corbyn plans to select one Labour MP each week to ask all six of the questions traditionally allocated to the Leader of the Opposition, or if he will pick six of his MPs to take a question each; if the latter, this would go somewhat towards rebalancing PMQs away from party leaders and back towards the backbenches. That said, it would potentially create a bit of unfairness.

Aside from the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the third largest party, all the other MPs who get to ask a question during PMQs won that right in a lottery, as I have explained many times in the past. While there might be grudging (or non-grudging) acceptance of the leader question quotas, I am not certain how Labour backbenchers might feel about one of their own getting the right to ask a question without going through the lottery shuffle.

However, it does sound like Corbyn plans to let one Labour MP take the six questions allotted to the Leader of the Opposition. I can imagine that this might be rather problematic for backbenchers from all parties. The six-question quota is for the Leader of the Opposition — not specifically for Labour, much less some random Labour MP. The logic behind granting the Leader of the Opposition a bit of a spotlight is tied to the idea of the official opposition being a “government in waiting”. While we tend to deplore the focus on party leaders, we have to acknowledge the reality that most people watch PMQs specifically to see the confrontation between the sitting PM and the potential PM. Corbyn’s approach, if he does implement it, may be more egalitarian, but I don’t know that it will be particularly popular either with his own MPs or with the general public.

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