Tuned in or Turned Off? Public Attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions

Tuned in or Turned Off? Public Attitudes to Prime Minister’s Questions

PMQ’s is like parliamentary ‘Marmite’: politicians and journalists either love it or loathe it. This research explores what the public think.

Why we are doing it

PMQ’s is like parliamentary ‘Marmite’: politicians and journalists either love it or loathe it. Its detractors argue that the noise and partisan point-scoring is now so off-putting that it feeds the public’s anti-politics, anti-politician mood. Its defenders argue that if it is toned down no on will watch it and the public will be even more detached from parliamentary activity than ever. They contend that it is a uniquely valuable opportunity to hold the leader of the country to account each week; its detractors consider it to be risible scrutiny. But what do the public think about it?

What we are doing

Surprisingly, given that criticism of PMQs has intensified in recent years, there is remarkably little quantitative or qualitative research on the subject. The assumptions and opinions of the ‘Westminster village’ have largely substituted for substantive evidence.

But since 2013, through online focus group discussions conducted in partnership with YouGov, and our annual Audit of Political Engagement opinion polls conducted by Ipsos MORI, we have tracked the public mood to PMQs and suggested a range of reforms to improve the culture and conduct of the event.

Our findings

Because the public see Parliament largely through the prism of the House of Commons chamber, they commonly assume that PMQs is therefore how Parliament works all the time. It acts as a ‘cue’ for their wider perceptions of the institution, providing a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians and politics.

In principle, the public recognise that PMQs is an important part of the democratic process because of the opportunity to hold the government to account. But PMQs in practice alienates, angers and frustrates. Overwhelmingly people dislike the noise, the point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions. The atmosphere, particularly the noise, confuses viewers and makes them feel uncomfortable.

The conduct of MPs is perceived to be childish, like school-children in a playground. This behaviour is contrasted negatively with people’s own experience in the workplace. One participant during our focus groups summed up the frustration that MPs don’t set a better example: ‘..They do argue like children. I mean can you imagine any other sphere of adult life where one would act with so little respect’.

The theatrical and pantomime aspects are also disliked. Said another participant having watched a clip of PMQs, ‘A rousing speech, and passionate conviction is a good thing. This was noise and bluster and showing off – theatrical, but not good.’

The theatrical elements -- the ‘farce drama’ -- also give rise to suspicion about the motives of the politicians involved. The public doubt the authenticity of what they see and consequently consider it dishonest.

But perhaps what should worry MPs most of all is that the public think they are ridiculing situations and issues that affect the lives of ordinary people instead of taking them seriously.

Our Audit of Political Engagement opinion poll results broadly confirm the focus group findings. Public perceptions remain overwhelmingly negative and when PMQs does appeal to citizens it does so at a rational rather than an emotional level.

The latest results are outlined in Audit 13:

  • 69% say there is ‘too much party political point scoring instead of answering the question’
  • 50% consider it ‘too noisy and aggressive’
  • 45% think it ‘deals with important issues facing the country’
  • 38% agree that it is ‘informative’
  • 32% say it puts them off politics
  • 22% think it is ‘exciting to watch’
  • 18% believe ‘MPs behave professionally’
  • 17% say it makes them ‘proud of Parliament’
  • Those who have seen PMQs in full are less likely to say it puts them off politics (28%) than those who have seen it only in edited clip form (35%).

Our funding

Between 2013-16, funding to support this research was provided by the House of Commons and the Cabinet Office via the Audit of Political Engagement project, supplemented by funding from the Hansard Society’s own core resources.

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