This Insight looks at the parliamentary event known as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) and analyses the attendance rates of Prime Ministers back to 1979.
What and when are PMQs?
MPs can apply to ask questions at daily ministerial Question Time. These happen at the beginning of the sitting day (except Fridays) and there is a rota to show which department is responsible for responding each day. On Wednesdays at 12 noon, it is the turn of the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).
PMQs have not always taken place on Wednesdays. Until dissolution of the House of Commons in March 1997, they took place twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 15 minutes. From the return of the Commons after the May 1997 General Election, PMQs switched to one 30-minute session every Wednesday.
For this reason, the following chart which looks at the attendance of various Prime Ministers, is not directly comparable. This data covers PMQs from 1979-80 to the end of October 2020. There were only four sitting Wednesdays with Boris Johnson as PM until the 2019 General Election; he attended three out of four in that period.
Attendance at PMQs by parliament
The data in the chart looks at parliaments, but also takes account of changes of Prime Minister mid-way through a parliament. The period after Theresa May’s election in 2016, up to the 2017 General Election, was the highest attended in the data available: she attended 23 out of 24 possible PMQs (95.8%). This was marginally higher than Tony Blair’s first term in office (1997-2001) where he attended 134 out of a possible 140 PMQs (95.7%).
Excluding Johnson’s four PMQs between his appointment and the 2019 election, the lowest attendance rate was between the 1992 and 1997 general elections when John Major attended 87.7% of the 310 possible PMQs. However, as mentioned above, this was at a time when PMQs was split into two smaller weekly sessions and so the figures are not directly comparable.
For the latest analysis, see attendance of PMQs.
Attendance at PMQs by Prime Minister
In terms of whole tenures, the chart below shows that Tony Blair had the highest attendance rate of any Prime Minister since 1979. He attended 95.0% of the potential PMQs across his time in office, only missing 17 out of the 343 occasions.
David Cameron was the next highest, with an attendance rate of 92.9%, followed by Margaret Thatcher (92.3%) and Theresa May (92.1%).
There are many reasons why Prime Ministers might not attend PMQs. For example, they may be attending an international engagement, participating in a national event or be unwell.
Deputising for the PM at PMQs
When the Prime Minister is away on an official engagement, their deputy or another senior minister will answer PMQs.
Of those who have deputised for the PM, Tony Newton, now Baron Newton of Braintree, attended most frequently in the period since 1979. He stood in for John Major on 27 occasions. Harriet Harman is the only woman to have deputised for a Prime Minister at PMQs; she was at the despatch box on 10 occasions during Gordon Brown’s tenure between 2007 and 2010.
On the occasions when the Prime Minister is away, a senior shadow minister from the Official Opposition party usually takes the place of the Leader of the Opposition.
This is part of a series on House of Commons trends to mark Parliament Week 2020. You can find more analysis and data in our full briefing.
Read the rest of the series.
About the author: Chris Watson is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in parliamentary data.
Image: ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor under CC BY 2.0, cropped
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