A quiet anniversary for Prime Minister's Questions

October 26, 2011 - 9:15 AM
Britain Politics

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves Downing Street to attend Prime Ministers Questions at parliament in London, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011. Oct. 24 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of Prime Minister's Question Time as a permanent parliamentary event. Question Time is an opportunity for Members of Parliament to ask government ministers questions. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister's Questions — that quintessentially British session of parliament often marked by baying legislators, prepared insults, exaggerated outrage and even an occasional straight answer — marked a 50th anniversary Wednesday.

Legislators celebrated, if celebration it was, by being pretty well behaved. There was no great din of shouting, and no appeals from Speaker John Bercow for the House to calm down.

The rowdy side emerged briefly when Conservative legislator Harriet Baldwin mentioned her experience in the private sector, and some opposition Labour members responded with campy cries of "ooooooooooooh!"

"At least she worked," someone on the government side barked in her defense.

The tradition of legislators questioning the leader of the government is much older, but Wednesday marked a half century since the ritual was set in a time-limited format which always draws a packed house. No one mentioned the anniversary.

In 1961, it was two sessions of 15 minutes each on Tuesday and Thursday. Tony Blair changed it to a single 30-minute joust on Wednesdays.

The latest session produced no drama or memorable insults, such as Blair's description in 1997 of then-Prime Minister John Major as "weak, weak, weak," or current Prime Minister David Cameron's 2005 jab at Blair: "He was the future once."

PMQs, as it is called, has been compared to bullfighting or a bear pit, and since it began being regularly televised in 1989 it has become popular far beyond Britain's shores. It is seen as a test of the prime minister's authority — and a test of their ability to think on their feet — and a couple of poor performances can cause grumbling among the ranks.

But some people wonder why the House bothers.

"The only saving grace is most people don't watch prime minister's questions," Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg remarked last month.

Inside the political world, always feverish about who's up and who's down, it matters. But a good performance doesn't necessarily win elections.

William Hague, now the foreign secretary, is widely regarded as one of the best performers among recent opposition leaders.

Hague once skewered a rambling statement by a government minister by saying, "There was so little English in that, President Chirac (former French President Jacques Chirac) would have been happy with it."

It's easy to get your own side to "ho ho ho" for your jokes, but Hague recently told the BBC that "the real art in Parliament is to make the other side laugh at their own side."

His skill did little good for the Conservative Party, which was flattened by Blair's Labour Party in the 2001 election when Hague was at the helm.

After stepping down as party leader, Hague told the House that his jousts with Blair "had been exciting and fascinating and fun and an enormous challenge, and from my point of view wholly unproductive."

Australia, Canada, the EU Parliament, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Japan and New Zealand have their own versions of question time. In the United States, with a very different political system in which press conferences substitute for interrogation by members of Congress, they make do with watching the British version on C-SPAN.