PMQ’s: A question of skill

September 16, 2016

Love them or loathe them, Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) are a central part of British politics. Despite efforts by the Speaker and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to reduce the ‘theatrics’ of PMQs, they still remain a cacophony of noise and showboating and are viewed by many as a distraction from the real business of Westminster.

PMQs have existed since the 1880s when formalised times were set aside for the ailing William Gladstone to take questions in the House at a specific time, rather than having to be present throughout the day. The principle has remained the same since then, although they have changed significantly in format. Perhaps the most considerable changes were having them broadcast live on television in 1990 and then consolidating them into a single half-hour session at midday on Wednesdays since 2003.

But beyond being a mere formality, many see PMQs as a test of the Prime Minister’s strength and ability to face scrutiny of the Government’s policies and actions. It’s interesting then, that whilst Prime Minister Theresa May’s first performance at PMQs was regarded a ‘triumph’, her defence of the grammar school policy this week was considered her worst showing so far.

So what are the skills needed to perform well at PMQs? In many ways, they are the same as would be needed in a confrontational media interview with a journalist or broadcaster.

Without doubt, good preparation and a full and complete grasp of the facts is the lynchpin of any strong response to difficult questioning. The ability to be able to use detail or rebut assertions used in questioning allows any interviewee to keep control of the dialogue, but also demonstrate their own grasp of the issues and ability to deal with them.

Second to knowledge is the skill of using difficult questions as an opportunity to reinforce key messages. That of course doesn’t mean ignoring the question completely, but leveraging the issues to establish core messages in response to a challenge. It’s more than just soundbites and spin. By the end of his tenure, David Cameron’s greatest skill at PMQs was to take Jeremy Corbyn’s criticisms and turn it into an opportunity to make three stronger points in rebuttal.

Compassion and understanding however are equally important to both of the above, if not more so.

In the same way that questions in a difficult media interview (especially those involving a serious incident) often require sensitivity and compassion for those affected, questions to the Prime Minister about housing, unemployment or taxes require a similar response.

Compassion and understanding can often be overlooked in a desire to simply provide a stern rebuttal, particularly when at the receiving end of critical questioning. However, it must not be forgotten that a central part of communicating to an audience in such a scenario is that you understand the gravity of the issue and that it matters to you on a personal level.

So maybe, beneath all the theatrics and disorderly conduct, communicators can learn something from tuning into the weekly ‘cut and thrust’ across the dispatch boxes. They say a week in politics is a long time, but even thirty minutes can seem like a lifetime if you get it wrong.