Prime Minister’s Questions: one pantomime we should all take time to see

Houses of ParliamentMany British people view the exchanges in the House of Commons as something of an embarrassing pantomime. That 650 grown men and women should holler at one another every week like overgrown schoolchildren is bad enough; that those 650 happen to be the people we have elected to serve as our representatives in government is something that doesn’t do either those individuals or the nation any credit.

Getting Tickets for the Show

Perhaps the most predictable and liveliest scrap of the week in the House of Commons is Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ). Every Wednesday at noon, the Prime Minister faces a thirty minute grilling from other members of Parliament, with the role of chief inquisitor falling to the Leader of the Opposition. Last week I had the chance to observe this playground battle at first hand. For British citizens it is very easy to get tickets for Prime Minister’s Questions. If you send in a written request to your MP they will apply for a ticket to the viewing gallery on your behalf. There is no charge.

The viewing gallery seats around 200 people and is always packed for the Wednesday lunchtime performance. I entered the gallery at around 11.45 and managed to squeeze onto the end of one of the already crowded benches. Behind the giant sound-proof glass partition, there were still plenty of empty seats for the debate that was taking place prior to the start of PMQs. It is only in the 10 minutes before the start of the debate that the majority of MPs shuffle into the chamber, with the party leaders entering just before noon flanked by their most loyal henchmen.

Prime Minister’s Questions: The Main Event

The conduct of British Parliamentarians may be a constant source of disappointment and anger to those who elect them, but if there is one area in which their standards never slip it is that of observing the rituals and protocols of the House. At 12.00 precisely an irrelevant question is asked about the Prime Minister’s business for the day; the same question every week that receives that same generic reply.

The other ritual that is sadly part of the weekly routine is the statement of condolence made by the party leaders regarding the members of the armed forces who were killed on active duty in the past week. This may have carried a lot more weight in the days when the people in our government had actually served in the military and knew at first hand the cost of the wars they were sanctioning; these days the attempts at sincerity appear sadly all too hollow.

The fight then begins in earnest, first with the Leader of the Opposition attacking the Prime Minister and then with other politicians trying to land their blows, some finding their target better than others. Each attack is met with a barrage of cheers from one side and heckles from the other, with hand gestures, smirks and theatrical expressions adding spice to proceedings. Occasionally someone from the Prime Minister’s side will stand up and ask him to confirm to the House what a great job they are doing.

Very rarely will someone ask a question that rises above the partisan battle and is actually being asked on behalf of their constituents (shocking but true). In these instances the jeering and the heckling stop for a moment and, depending on the Prime Minister’s answer, a low murmur of agreement is heard from all sides. Then another grenade is lobbed and normality is restored.

Why it Matters

For those in and around London I would highly recommend a visit to Parliament to see the folks we voted for (or against) in action. It might not make for very pretty viewing but it did make me feel quite reassured to see just how many people want to witness these debates and how genuine their interest appeared in the proceedings. Let’s face it; we’ve all seen the appalling behaviour of these people in recent years. Imagine what would go on if the galleries emptied and they knew we were no longer watching them.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

6 Responses to “Prime Minister’s Questions: one pantomime we should all take time to see”

  1. Any idea of contact protocol for non-residents to obtain tickets?
    I’d love to attend during my next visit.

    October 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm
  2. Hi Maria
    Thanks for the question. It is possible to view Prime Minister’s Questions as a non-resident but it requires a lot of queuing and a bit of luck as well. Here’s the information from the official website:
    Hope that helps :)

    October 18, 2011 at 8:43 pm
  3. Andy, I love your writing and how you paint the picture of parliament. With that said, politics sicken me. Can’t stand them – exactly for the reasons you mentioned. Many are concerned about winning re-election, beating the other side, and yelling at each other that they forget what it is really about. It’s why I have little faith in government to help solve our issues because they are more concerned about themselves and their power than the people. I guess I shouldn’t use this post to rant because a visit to the Parliament would be fascinating. I just wish I had more respect for those that are a part of it.

    October 19, 2011 at 5:35 am
  4. Bob #

    Andy, brilliant article! I’m currently an overseas visitor studying Politics and Law at university. Do you know if I would be able to acquire tickets for PMQ by having one of my UK citizen friends request them for me from their MP? When presenting tickets, will security ask for a photo ID or simply accept that I have a ticket?

    October 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm
    • Thanks for the question Bob. I suspect security would pick you up if you had a different name on your ticket. The best bet for you may be to arrive very early on a Wednesday and be one of the first to get into the public gallery.

      October 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm
  5. We can go and watch ‘Question Time’ at 3pm on sitting weeks in Australia as well – it follows along the same lines. A room full of grown up shouting at each other, slinging insults and generally acting like 3 year olds. Although we only have 150 politicians in our House of Reps, so seeing 650 would be like a huge circus act.

    I think it is great that the public can go along and watch but their behaviour is just shocking and really makes you wonder how some of them got voted in to start with!

    October 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm