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16 September 2015

How does Prime Ministers’ Questions work (and how did Jeremy Corbyn just change it)?

Braying, bobbing, and crowd-sourced questions. What's it all about?

By Stephanie Boland

Prime Minister’s Questions is the weekly session in which MPs can ask questions of – you guessed it – the Prime Minister.

But what’s going on? Why are there MPs bobbing up and down? And why is what Corbyn just did so radical?

The questions

Ordinarily, six questions come from the leader of the opposition, either all together or in chunks. This gives the opposition leader the chance to follow up on the Prime Minister’s answers and make sure their key concerns are put across.

There are also questions from MPs. Many of these are submitted in advance and selected in a ballot. The Speaker, John Bercow, will then call these MPs in a random order – usually following one from the government benches with one from the opposition, and so on and so forth.

Additionally, MPs can be picked to ask a question if they can catch the eye of the Speaker – by “bobbing” before the Prime Minister gives his answer. (That’s why you can see Labour MPs dipping up and down in the back benches.)

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Why are some of the questions so similar?

Parties send key lines to their MPs in advance that they would like them ask about: e.g. “northern powerhouse”, “long-term economic plan”. This allows the Government to use PMQs to re-enforce their message.

So what did Jeremy Corbyn just do?

To put it briefly: he asked PMQs to grow up.

It’s been shown before that relatively few people watch PMQs, and that voters are sometimes put off by the noise and braying in the house. John Bercow has previously described it as “embarrassing”, and some MPs have even claimed it discourages them from attending.

Today, Corbyn asked for a “new PMQs” with less braying, shouting and, crucially, with the questions submitted by the public.

After receiving over 40,000 responses to a call for questions, the new opposition leader read them out to the Prime Minister – a move which made it hard for David Cameron to mock or belittle Corbyn’s queries. It’s a clever idea, and if it sticks, it could be a watershed moment in the history of PMQs.

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