Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
2 December 2020updated 03 Dec 2020 11:05am

William Hague’s PMQs are lionised at Westminster – but his approach has been forgotten

The former opposition leader is often said to have regularly won PMQs – yet no one has learned from him.

By Stephen Bush

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? 

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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.