Prime Minister's questions as political ritual

Abstract

This article contends that Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) are a political ritual that supports a gender regime in the House of Commons. After a brief description of PMQs their context and nature are discussed from the standpoints of participants and observers. Then new evidence of the attitudes of MPs and the public is presented in which differences between women and men are analysed and discussed. These findings challenge the notion that PMQs are off-putting to the public, especially women, but show that many MPs are ambivalent, women more than men. The conclusions discuss these unexpected findings and assess their significance to the political representation of women and the nature of parliamentary politics.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Labour woman MP Interview (1998), conducted by Sarah Childs.

  2. 2.

    This section describes PQs and PMQs, drawing heavily on the standard text by Rogers and Walters 2006. How Parliament Works Sixth edition (Chapter 11) and from the very useful description provided by Armitage and Malley (2008).

  3. 3.

    It must be about something for which the minister is responsible, cannot be on a sub judice matter, must have some reasonable basis in fact, cannot have been answered in the previous 3 months (unless situation has evidently changed) and must not seek information that is readily available.

  4. 4.

    Faith Armitage notes that the appearance of supposedly serious political figures – such as Anne Widdecombe and Edwina Currie – on Strictly Come Dancing, as another example of this.

  5. 5.

    Liberal Democrat MP (male) interview conducted by Faith Armitage, 26 January 2010.

  6. 6.

    Labour woman MP interview conducted by Sarah Childs (1998).

  7. 7.

    Labour woman MP interview conducted by Rosa Malley (2010).

  8. 8.

    See essays in Krook and McKay (2010) for a fuller discussion of feminist institutionalism.

  9. 9.

    Conservative Male MP Interview conducted by Faith Armitage (2010).

  10. 10.

    http://www.dianeabbott.org.uk/news/articles/news.aspx?p=102528. Thanks to Rosa Malley for this reference.

  11. 11.

    Bird's work is telling and suggestive of the utility of more research. Her selected year came very soon after the numbers of women MPs doubled. It would be interesting to see a repeat study for 2008–2009 when women MPs were no longer so ‘new’ and men MPs had time to get used to the language and concerns of gender and women's issues. Bird's research suggests that it matters who is asking the question, that is, who is calling the government to account. It also indicates that women's opportunities for changing the institutional gendering come at the margins of mainstream politics.

  12. 12.

    Sarah Childs and Phillip Cowley helped with the question design for the You Gov Survey of the public as did the You Gov Team. Katherine Peacock and Rosie Campbell helped with the question design on the ComRes Survey of MPs.

  13. 13.

    Conservative MP Interview conducted by Rosa Malley (2010).

  14. 14.

    Liberal Democrat Interview conducted by Faith Armitage (2010).

  15. 15.

    http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/pais/research/gcrp/.

  16. 16.

    The general election of 2010 took place between the interviews and the survey, hence the composition of the House of Commons changed. However, there was no reason to think that attitudes in the new House of Commons would be less positive toward PMQs.

  17. 17.

    The survey was conducted after the parliamentary expenses scandal but before the general election.

  18. 18.

    Each Wednesday, the Prime Minister is questioned by MPs, including the leader of the Opposition, for half an hour. This is known as PMQs. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements? Strongly agree, Tend to agree, Tend to disagree, Strongly disagree, Don’t know. 1. PMQs make sure that key issues of concern for the country are discussed (coded positive) 2. PMQs wastes MPs’ time (coded negative) 3. PMQs makes PMs defend their actions (coded positive) 4. PMQs keep MPs happy by scoring party political points against their opponents (coded negative) 5. PMQs provide ‘good television’(not coded) 6. PMQs wastes the Prime Minister’s time (coded negative) 7. PMQs is the most important time of the week in the House of Commons as it is the only time that most MPs and Ministers are there (coded positive) 8. PMQs tells the people what the Government is doing (coded positive).

  19. 19.

    Spearman bivariate correlation.

  20. 20.

    Social class and party identification were also significantly related to the positive scale but the associations were trivial.

  21. 21.

    On the basis of the results of a simple linear regression of Gender, Party ID, Class and Ethnicity. Party ID, Class and Ethnicity were significantly correlated to positive attitudes to PMQs (binary correlation) but did not survive the regression.

  22. 22.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/lucyjones/100053061/pmqs-whose-boobs-are-these/.

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Acknowledgements

This article was prepared with the support of the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual Programme (GCRP), financed by the Leverhulme Foundation. It draws on interviews conducted for the programme by Faith Armitage and Rosa Malley in the course of their research. Both kindly included questions about PMQs in their interviews at the request of the author. It also makes use of earlier interviews conducted by Sarah Childs with the New Labour women MPs who were first elected to the House of Commons in 1997 and kindly supplied to the author. Each interview is therefore ascribed to the interviewer by their initials. The article also includes evidence from specially commissioned Survey Questions from YouGov and ComRes. Phillip Cowley helped with the You Gov Question design. Laurence Janta-Lipinski at YouGov and Katherine Peacock at ComRes made helpful suggestions about survey design and question wording. I am also grateful to Faith Armitage, Rosie Campbell, Sarah Childs, Alan Finlayson, Rosa Malley, Deborah Mabbett, Shirin Rai, Alan Ware and the participants in the GCRP programme and the Birkbeck Gender and British Politics Seminar series for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article.

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An erratum to this article is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/bp.2014.1.

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Lovenduski, J. Prime Minister's questions as political ritual. Br Polit 7, 314–340 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1057/bp.2012.13

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Keywords

  • Prime Minister's questions
  • women
  • gender
  • parliament
  • political ritual
  • gender regime