The history of Prime Minister’s Questions

Today sees Nick Clegg take to the Despatch Box to answer Prime Minister’s Questions in David Cameron’s absence from the UK.

Several Liberal Democrats have taken to social media expressing their anticipation, such as Jo Swinson:

reserving a seat to watch a little bit of Lib Dem history later today – Nick Clegg taking #pmqs, first Lib leader to do so since 1922

Others have also made reference to Nick Clegg being the first Liberal (Democrat) leader to take PMQs since Lloyd George.

However, as Hopi Sen has pointed out the history of PMQs is a little more complicated than this:

I appeal to @markpack on behalf of history nerds. Asquith last Liberal _leader_ to take Qs. Also PMQ’s began in ’61 so no-one did em in 22

So what is the actual situation?

First, in 1922 Lloyd George was Prime Minister, but as head of a coalition government, with Asquith still leader of the Liberal Party. So strictly speaking Nick Clegg won’t be the first Liberal (Democrat) leader since 1922 to answer Prime Minister questions.

Second, Prime Minister’s Questions in their modern form did indeed start in 1961. However, they were around in a different form prior to that, as the House of Commons Library explains:

Before the 1880s questions to the Prime Minister were treated no differently from questions to other Ministers.

Until then questions were asked of ministers, without notice, on days on which ministers were present (usually Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays), in whatever order Members rose to ask them. Public business could not commence until all questions had been answered. Changes were made in 1881 that affected questions to the Prime Minister, “when as a courtesy to Mr Gladstone, then aged 72, questions to the prime minister were placed last on the day’s list to allow him to come in late”.

So although the phrase “Prime Minister’s Questions” was not used by contemporaries in the way it is now, it is a reasonable simplification (especially within the 140 character confines of a tweet!) to use it to describe the pre-1961 situation when Prime Ministers answered questions.

But whatever the terminology, today will see a historic event the likes of which last occurred a long time ago.

UPDATE: Lloyd George missed the ones on 4 August 1922, which turned out to be the last occasion before the coalition government fell, as he was absent from Parliament. Therefore the last questions he answered as Prime Minister were those on 3 August, including this admirably brief and precise exchange:

Mr. MALONE asked the Prime Minister whether he has any information to give the House as to whether the Greek Army has continued to advance on Constantinople since the Allied Notes were addressed to the Greek Government; and whether, in view of the serious consequences which a Greek occupation of Constantinople would have, he will give the House an assurance that the Government will take measures to prevent the Greeks from occupying Constantinople while Parliament is in Recess?

The PRIME MINISTER The answer to the first part of the question is in the negative, and to the second part in the affirmative.

The last exchanges were about the League of Nations:

The PRIME MINISTER The names of the representatives of the British Government at the meeting of the League of Nations at Geneva are my Noble Friend the Lord President of the Council, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Education, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stoke-upon-Trent (Lieut.-Colonel J. Ward).

Lord R. CECIL Can the right hon. Gentleman reply to the last part of my question, as to whether he himself will be able to attend at any part of the proceedings? Does he realise that it will be quite possible for him to go only for two or three days, and to deliver a speech on disarmament or some other question of great international importance.

The PRIME MINISTER There I am leaving myself in the hands of the representatives of the Government. The same suggestion was put to me by them, and I am leaving myself in their hands and shall wait their further suggestion.

Mr. GRITTEN Is it not more necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to remain in this distressful country?

Viscountess ASTOR Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether a woman will be sent in an advisory capacity?

The PRIME MINISTER That was also considered by the Government, and it has been decided that that shall he done.

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