Prime Minister’s Questions is largely won outside the chamber: although occasionally, a poorly delivered joke or some kind of calamity can change that, for the most part, the winner is set long before either the prime minister or the leader of the opposition sits down.
Of course, PMQs primarily matters inside the chamber. It has a big impact on the morale of MPs, and influences the general chatter among the commentariat, which in turn influences how the parties are covered in the arena that really matters at elections – the broadcasters.
But the winner is largely decided by what happens outside it. The main reason why Boris Johnson has tended to lose or draw these exchanges recently is that his party is badly split over how to handle the pandemic, and this creates space for Keir Starmer to perform constructive opposition while in reality exploiting those divisions. The main reason why Johnson was always going to win today’s PMQs is that the UK has a Covid-19 vaccine.
There was one way for Starmer to win today, which was simply not to use all of his six questions, but just to use one: to ask the Prime Minister to join him in congratulating the research team, the volunteers, and then either to ask him to meet with him to discuss how they can work together to combat anti-vaccination sentiments or to give some kind of medal to any British scientist working on a successful vaccine scheme and/or British clinical volunteers. Whatever you may think of that approach, it would give off the vibe that Starmer is striving for.
While a variety of tactical approaches to PMQs have been pursued since 1979, when it was introduced in its modern form, just one, William Hague, has realised that you don’t need to use all your six allocated questions. You use the number of questions you want to. The point of PMQs is to advance a strategic case about your party and to sell yourself either as the incumbent or the challenger. If you have the ability to avoid a defeat by mixing up how you use your questions, why not do so?
Not using your sixth question every week also blunts the prime minister’s in-built advantage: the prime minister should, as a matter of course, force a draw at PMQs because they have the last word. (As Ailbhe describes in her write-up today,) If you mix it up a bit, the prime minister can’t be sure if they should fire their biggest gun early or not – potentially leaving the leader of the opposition with the opportunity to rebut their biggest comeback.
Yet every leader of the opposition since Hague – including Jeremy Corbyn – has opted to use all six questions every week, even if they would have been better off not doing so.
It’s fascinating, because Hague exists in Westminster groupthink as a master of Prime Minister’s Questions, yet his techniques and strategic approach have had no impact on any of the six full-time leaders since. Hague is lionised, but forgotten: and his replacements suffer defeats in the chamber when they don’t need to as a result.