“Can I just ask you to check if you are carrying any of these items, sir,” said the kindly security officer at the street entrance to the Palace of Westminster. His politeness was disarming, given he was controlling entry to an atrial chamber of British democracy. My eyes flitted to his colleague, a Metropolitan police officer with a Heckler & Koch. Speak softly, but carry a big submachine gun.
The kindly one pointed towards a large sign with pictures of items prohibited inside the palace. We went through them one by one. Knives, including Swiss army knives? No. Guns? Of course not. Cutlery, whistle, spray can, padlock, screwdriver, spanner, scissors? Nothing of the sort.
We both smiled, yet this was not an episode of jobsworth paranoia. PC Keith Palmer was killed 50m away in 2017 by Khalid Masood, who was wielding a knife in each hand. The airport-style security is among the most logical things about the palace, which today, as it does each Wednesday at noon, hosts the rambunctious pageant that is Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).
The whole show lasts only 30 to 40 minutes. The loudest cheering and boorish hollering – the bits that make the television news clips – happens during the opening exchanges
PMQs in the House of Commons is famous as the centrepiece of British parliamentary politics, when the country’s leader is subjected to a barrage of questioning on, quite literally, anything at all. Many democracies have their own variations on the theme, such as Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil. None match PMQs for box office quality. It’s a political mad tea party, and everyone has a cup.
It seems frenetic, but the format is simple. It opens with the leader of the opposition, for now Labour’s Keir Starmer, lobbing a hand grenade disguised as a question at the prime minister, Rishi Sunak. The opposition leader can ask six questions. Exchanges across the dispatch box typically are laced with astringency, pomp and, sometimes, debaters’ wit and humour.
Leader in the house of the third largest party, the Scottish National Party’s Stephen Flynn, gets to ask two questions. Backbenchers apply beforehand to throw in queries. Their names are listed on the order paper but their questions are not, adding to the spontaneity.
The final category includes backbenchers who on the day catch the attention of the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. This is why they all stand up and down like meerkats every few minutes, trying to fill the speaker’s eye line. Questions tend to be loaded or sycophantic, depending on the side of the house from which they emanate.
The prime minister must answer them all and cannot transfer questions to ministers. Former PM Tony Blair likened the ordeal to the scene in 1970s thriller, Marathon Man, when Dustin Hoffman’s character is tortured with a dentist’s drill. There have been memorable moments in recent years, such as when Boris Johnson dismissed Starmer as “Captain Crasheroonie Snoozefest”, or when his successor, Liz Truss, declared with gusto that she was “not a quitter”, 25 hours before she quit.
The whole show lasts only 30 to 40 minutes. The loudest cheering and boorish hollering – the bits that make the television news clips – happen during the opening exchanges between the main party leaders. Both of the men currently in those roles are bona fide, accomplished public debaters.
While it is easy to dismiss PMQs as a media-driven cabaret, it has real political significance, as Sunak will find out today. Last Wednesday when I attended, he was asked about the tax compliance of Tory party chairman and former chancellor of the exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi. Sunak rebuffed the question with a confident assertion that his colleague had already “addressed the matter in full”. As Zahawi’s admissions days later confirming a settlement with tax authorities showed, he had not.
It has left Sunak terribly politically exposed and surely he will be savaged in today’s PMQs for misleading the house seven days before, regardless of how inadvertent it was or was not. The momentum for political change can grow roots in such public displays of ineptitude. Seven days on, Sunak’s past backing for Zahawi makes him look, at best, ill informed and weak. With boilerplate accusations of “Tory sleaze” back in the headlines, PMQs today will be a battle to regain initiative.
For Starmer, this has become his weekly audition in front of British voters to prove he is up to the ultimate job. He will be the one throwing tomatoes at Sunak this afternoon, but he would give almost anything to be his quarry on the other side of the dispatch box, slipping jabs and dancing in the harsh political spotlight.
With each fresh, self-inflicted Tory wound, steady Starmer edges ever closer.