If you follow the nerve of British politics, the word PMQs must be familiar. PMQs stands for Prime Ministers Questions, though the official title is Questions to the Prime Minister. PMQs forms a major part of British political culture and, it is among the most watched parliamentary episodes in the country, with tickets to the Strangers’ Gallery being the most sought-after tickets. It’s famous and to some people, hilarious.
Though some voters hate PMQs, friends who have reported politics in the House of Commons for years told me that Prime Ministers fear it, Leaders of Opposition and journalists as well as the sketch writers enjoy this theatrical session. Perhaps the most entertaining and sparkling scrap of the week in the House of Commons is PMQs.
Every Wednesday at noon, the Prime Minister faces a 30-minute grilling from other members of Parliament; with the role of chief cross-examiner falling to the Leader of the Opposition. This is the time when Parliament comes to life. For most of the questions, the Prime Minister is under pressure to show the British people that he knows what is going on in government since most of the responses are given off-the-cuff.
From the vantage point of the Press Gallery, I realised that each PMQs begins with a procedural question, asking the Prime Minister to list his engagements for the day. The Prime Minister usually gives a standard answer, but may also take this opportunity to offer congratulations or condolences on any recent significant events. The member who asked the procedural question is then allowed to ask a supplementary question if they wish, which can be on any subject.
After the initial question, the floor is given to the Leader of the Opposition, who is allowed to ask the Prime Minister six questions. This part of PMQs is the most eagerly anticipated and has the greatest depth. Following on from this, the leader of the next largest party in the House is allowed to ask two questions. When the Prime Minister is away on official business or ill, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of Opposition take their place. In all this drama, the Speaker’s neutrality is observed.
In October last year, PMQs, in its current form, made 50 years. In Uganda, Rule 34 of the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure provides this kind of arrangement, but had remained on paper until recently when Speaker Rebecca Kadaga ordered the Clerk to Parliament to draft guidelines for PMQs. The good news is that unlike the House of Commons, our rules provide for 45 minutes of drama. So, in the coming few weeks, if all goes on plan, we are likely to see a clash of political gladiators — the first ever issue-based exchange between Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and the Leader of Opposition, Mr Nandala Mafabi. I can’t wait to see the winner.
Having spent three months in the House of Commons, reporting news and observing how mature politicians conduct themselves, I realised that many British people view PMQs as something of an embarrassing drama. That their representatives yell at one another every week like schoolchildren is bad enough. The politics of who beats who at the dispatch box and the gladiatorial shouting match in support of their leaders is what some voters so dislike.
But for others, the cheering for a good retort is what makes PMQs interesting. My prayer is that as our Parliament joins the elite, we should be mindful of the cheap politics. The objective of PMQs is for the opposition to hold the Prime Minister to account on the big issues of the day.
However, as we implement PMQs we need to understand that the ultimate success or failure of a Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition is not decided at PMQs. But it is true that the PMQs verdict as captured in national newspapers speaks volumes on how a leader is perceived. This explains why the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition must impress the public in order to win the wager. This is serious stuff and there is no time for the Prime Minister to beg for more time to consult on a particular issue. Written answers can be provided for specific questions but the spectators normally view this as a sign of obliviousness.
Certainly, leaders who enjoy the confidence of their backbenchers are usually very competent at the dispatch box. Watching your leader whether opposition or government get beaten by their opponent every week is hugely dispiriting. For some reasons, people may obliviously think that the drama we are going to see every Wednesday in Parliament will be ending on the floor, which is not the case. These impressions filter down into the media and people’s consciousness.
Although most people, particularly those in the countryside, might not get the opportunity to watch PMQs for obvious reason like lack of electricity, this political contest shapes their opinions and promotes accountability in government.
In the House of Commons, they also have Ministers Questions (MQs). Each sector is allocated a schedule for backbenchers to ask questions. How I wish, our Parliament could also adopt this system to help us deal with sleepy ministers. While there is no proof that MQs can transform fatigued ministers into angels, it is true that such a system emboldens the culture of accountability and discipline.
In a warped system, the underlying problem seems to be that the system of political reward — the allocation of ministerial roles — is not related to the actual requirements of government. Appointment to ministerial office is used for other purposes, such as political loyalty. This is why some do not care.