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Sixty highlights from sixty years of PMQs

Sixty highlights from sixty years of PMQs
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It was 60 years this week since the first Prime Ministers’ Questions took place. What began as a sedate affair under Harold Macmillan has now become the centrepiece of the weekly parliamentary calendar, beginning at 12 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon. Over the years there have been numerous zingers, gaffes, probing questions and shameless defences, contributing to the public's perception and understanding of its leaders in the cockpit of British democracy. Here, Steerpike brings you 60 of the best moments from PMQs first 60 years. 

Naturally there is a bias towards more recent years, with PMQs taking some time to be established as the place to make a mark. Indeed Dennis Skinner once recalled Eric Heffer being able to ask two questions in 15 minutes in one 1964 session as there was so little demand from MPs to ask anything.  Now though it has become the place to make or break MPs. Tony Blair memorably likened the experience in his autobiography to the teeth extraction from Marathon Man, with Wilson being forced to take a brandy (or two in later years) to help steady his nerves ahead of a session.

Here's to the next six decades...

May 1979 – Labour MP Stanley Clinton-Davis asks Margaret Thatcher at her first PMQs: ‘In replying to all questions, will she please not be too strident?’ Famous last words.

October 1984 – An important lesson on preparation for one future Prime Minister from another. An unknown backbencher called Anthony Blair tried to catch Thatcher out by referencing the 1944 employment White Paper – a copy of which the Iron Lady then proceeded to fish from her handbag and quote to the House. Quite the handbagging.

May 1988 One of the few occasions Neil Kinnock clearly came out on top in his seven years of bouts against Mrs Thatcher. His line of questioning about the exchange rate – ‘Can the right hon. Lady give us a straight answer? Does the Prime Minister agree with her Chancellor of the Exchequer?’ – highlighted the differences between Thatcher and Nigel Lawson that were to be so brutally exposed after his resignation the following year.

February 1990 One of the great parliamentary heckles. The first PMQs after the release of Nelson Mandela led Labour MP Joan Ruddock to raise the issue in the House. Beginning her question: ‘If the Prime Minister had just spent 27 years in prison –’ to which Gerald Kaufman interjected: ‘As she should!’

November 1990 ­– Thatcher’s final PMQs. The occasion was dominated by sycophantic questions such as this by Jill Knight: ‘May I ask my right honourable friend to reflect with pride that a thousand years from now, when every other member of the House is dead dust, she alone will have a hallowed place in the history books?’ It prompted Labour’s David Winnick to ask Thatcher if she found it ‘the height of hypocrisy and nauseating to be so highly praised by Tory members when, last week, 152 of them stabbed her in the back’. ‘I do not find it nauseating,’ Thatcher replied: ‘I find it very refreshing.’

November 1990 – At Thatcher's last PMQs, Neil Kinnock asks her to confirm which of her policies should be scrapped. She responds: ‘I am happy that my successor will carry on the excellent policies that have finished with the decline of socialism, brought great prosperity to this country, raised Britain's standing in the world and brought about a truly capital-owning democracy.’

November 1990 – John Major’s first session as PM begins in humorous fashion when he stands up to answer his first question, prompting Labour MP Dennis Skinner to yell ‘Resign!’

April 1995 – Tony Blair delivers a memorable and withering put down to John Major after months of Tory infighting: ‘I lead my party, he follows his.’

July 1995 ­– Labour backbencher Nick Ainger bowled a fabulous googly to John Major, two days after John Redwood’s bid to oust Major as leader of the Conservative party failed: ‘Given the description by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) of the Prime Minister's leadership style as uncertainty based on indecision, is it the new job of the Deputy Prime Minister now to take the decisions. Or has the Prime Minister not decided yet?’

October 1995 ­– Following Michael Heseltine’s promotion to Deputy Prime Minister, his opposite number John Prescott smirks: ‘This is an historic moment. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his first Prime Minister's questions. It has been a long time, but he has finally made it.’

January 1997 – Another Blair taunt at Major for failing to unite his party over Europe and impose a uniform message on Conservative candidates standing for the forthcoming election: ‘Weak, weak, weak.’ Unsurprisingly, Blair wins by a landslide.

March 1997 – In John Major’s penultimate session as Prime Minister, Speaker Betty Boothroyd savages Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes. Having tired of his efforts to wait for silence, Boothroyd tells Hughes: ‘There is no point in waiting for silence: the hon. Gentleman will not get silence. Produce your voice, Mr. Hughes!’

November 1997: With New Labour in power, newly-elected Tory backbencher John Bercow (whatever happened to him?) makes the mistake of asking a sleaze-related question about the ethics of the Labour Party’s policy on accepting political donations. Blair’s masterful reply was:, ‘I am intrigued that the honourable gentleman should ask such a question as I understand that his last employment was as special adviser to Jonathan Aitken.’

March 1998 – Even softball questions have their limits. After backbencher Barry Jones concludes a question with the words: ‘Will he accept also that the Budget was magnificent?’ Blair wryly responds:‘On balance, I would agree. Some people may not like some old-fashioned sycophancy – but not me.’

December 1998 – Blair humiliates Conservative leader William Hague by revealing he has struck a deal with Tory peer Viscount Cranborne to keep a tenth of the hereditary peers in order to pass a Lords reform act. Hague, usually so adept at the dispatch box, is wrong-footed while Cranborne is sacked.

February 2002 – Labour MP and ex-lorry driver Tony McWalter inadvertently caused hilarity with this brain teaser, asking the famously teflon Tony Blair if he ‘could he briefly outline his political philosophy?’ For once, the master was stumped and had to reel off statistics.

May 2002 – David Cameron’s first PMQs encounter with Tony Blair as a backbencher. The Old Etonian asks about councils charging residents low rates, to which Blair cooly points out that five of the top 10 council taxes in the country are run by Conservative authorities. Cameron later writes about his nerves in a diary for the Guardian and how to craft the perfect PMQs question.

April 2002 – Newly elected Labour MP Kevin Brennan demonstrates a masterful way of mixing hackery and wit: ‘When will the Prime Minister do something about state subsidy junkies? Is he aware that one organisation has received a massive 300 per cent increase in handouts from the taxpayer since 1997 with no improvement whatsoever in its performance? Does he agree that that shows that pouring money into unreformed institutions is a waste of time? [Interruption] Yes, you’ve got it. The answer of course is Short money, paid by the taxpayer to the Conservative Party.’

November 2003 – Michael Howard takes over from the flailing Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader and makes it clear from his first session he will be no soft touch: ‘I am happy to debate the past with the Prime Minister any day he likes. I have a big dossier on his past, and I did not even have to sex it up.’

December 2003 – Howard’s best moment at PMQs comes a month into his leadership on the subject of higher education: ‘This grammar school boy is not going to take any lessons from that public school boy on the importance of children from less privileged backgrounds gaining access to university.’

May 2004 – A major review of security is launched after condoms full of purple flour were thrown by Fathers4Justice at Tony Blair as he faced MPs, with proceedings suspended.

October 2004 – Labour backbenchers had begun to tire of Blair by the later years of his premiership. This question by Gordon Prentice crystallised the discontent better than most: ‘A decade ago the Prime Minister won the Labour leadership on a manifesto promising change and renewal. Now, after seven years of Government, can he think of a single dramatic act that would make the British public sit up and take notice?’

December 2005 – David Cameron replaces Michael Howard as leader and makes clear his intent at his first PMQs telling Blair: ‘It’s only our first exchange and already the Prime Minister is asking me the questions. This approach is stuck in the past and I want to talk about the future. He was the future once.’

December 2005 ­– At the same session, Labour backbencher Jeff Ennis shows how to diffuse a topic with humour, beginning his question to Blair: ‘Can my right hon. Friend tell me how he will deal with a young, handsome, intelligent, charismatic politician, such as myself’

January 2006 – Blair demonstrates his mastery against the then stand-in Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who raises the issue of schools without a permanent head. Blair shoots back: ‘It can be difficult to find a permanent head of an organisation when the post is vacant – particularly if it is a failing organisation.’

February 2006 – For the first time in nearly five years, William Hague returns to PMQs, standing in against Tony Blair while David Cameron was on paternity leave, at a time when there was also a Liberal Democrat leadership election going on. He opened with a subtle dig about the infighting between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: ‘For the first time in history at Question Time, all three parties are represented by a stand-in for the real leader.’

February 2006 – On the subject of hate speech, Hague continues in the same session: ‘There are old powers you won't use and new powers we have seen abused!’ adding sarcastically ‘It is the opinion of all decent lawyers - you should ask one, you've probably got one at home.’

March 2006 – Facing questions about his age the 64-year-old by now permanent Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell raises the need for the government to give ‘accurate and complete information about pensions.’ Tory backbencher Eric Forth called out, ‘Declare your interest!’

March 2006 – Hague stands in for Cameron again, this time against Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. After one mangled reply, Hague remarks: ‘There was so little English in that answer that President Chirac would have been happy with it.’

March 2006 – Prescott gives as good as he gets at the same session, welcoming Hague back by saying: ‘It seems that the Tories have been going through leaders so fast that they have started at the beginning again. They are now so green that they are even recycling their leaders. Us Rotherham lads must stick together, must we not?’

March 2006 – Hague also took a pop at Prezz’a infamous 2001 election punch, jibing: ‘At least I got through the campaign without hitting anybody.’ To which the former ship steward thundered: ‘I thought we had finished Punch and Judy politics. I knew I would be called Mr Punch, what do you think that leaves you?’

June 2007 – Blair begins his final PMQs session by remaking on a piece of paper he received yesterday: ‘Details of employee leaving work. Surname: Blair; first name: T. It said actually: Mr, Mrs, Miss or other. This form is important to you, take good care of it, P45.’

June 2007 – And Blair closes 13 years of doing such back and forths with these words: ‘I wish everyone, friend or foe, well and that is that, the end’ followed by a rare Commons standing ovation.

October 2007 – Gordon Brown takes over and enjoys a short honeymoon before deciding against an early election, a fatal decision after he claims the polls had nothing to do with his decision. Cameron takes a polling lead he never relinquishes and enjoys mocking the Prime Minister at their next Wednesday encounter: ‘He is the first Prime Minister in history to flunk an election because he thought that he was going to win it’ and mocking ‘his best-selling book about courage.’

November 2007 – Lib Dem acting leader rubs salt into Brown’s wounds by telling MPs: ‘the House has noticed the Prime Minister's remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean, creating chaos out of order rather than order out of chaos.’

December 2008 – As the financial crisis deepened, Brown made a gaffe at PMQs which would haunt him for years to come. Defending recapitalisation he told MPs to hilarity that ‘We not only saved the world...saved the banks and led the way...We not only saved the banks…’

December 2008 – After Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told GQ magazine he’d slept with ‘no more than 30’ women, a subsequent PMQs appearance was ruined when he told the House a single mother with small children had paid him a visit. It prompted one backbencher to cry out ‘31!’ forcing laughter across the House.

July 2009 ­– Another Brown gaffe. Challenged by Conservative leader David Cameron to admit that public spending will have to be cut under the government’s own plans, Brown told parliament it would rise by ‘zero percent in 2013/14.’

October 2009 – As Brown’s premiership drew to a close, 1922 Chairman Sir Michael Spicer asked a model killer question: ‘Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will soldier on to the bitter end?’

January 2010 ­– Another short Spicer skewer came when he asked Brown ‘Now we face stagflation, what’s he going to do about it?’

December 2010 – Newly elected Labour leader Ed Miliband leads on William Hague's comment to a US embassy official, buried within a Wikileaks release, that he, Mr Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne were ‘children of Thatcher.’ But Miliband’s mockery turned to Tory jeers when Cameron retorted ‘I’d rather be a child of Thatcher than a son of Brown.’

December 2010 ­– Riffing on David Cameron’s love of The Smiths, Labour MP Kerry McCarthy finds an unusual way to grill about him tuition fees: ‘If he wins tomorrow night’s vote [on tuition fees], what songs does he think students will be listening to? ‘Miserable Lie’, ‘I Don’t Owe You Anything’ or ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’?’

March 2011 – The exchanges between Cameron and Miliband quickly become classics of the genre. Asked about reports he would move Foreign Secretary William Hague, Cameron takes a pop at Ed for pipping his brother to the crown: ‘There is only one person around here who knifed a foreign secretary and I'm looking at him.’

March 2011 – Cameron earns the nickname ‘Flashman’ from Miliband after months of exchanges such as one incident when he breaks off an answer to mock Ed Balls: ‘I wish the shadow chancellor would occasionally shut up and listen to the answer’ adding ‘I may be alone in thinking him the most annoying person in modern politics. I've got a feeling the leader of the opposition will one day agree with me, but there we are.’

April 2011 – Cameron faces accusations of sexism after borrowing Michael Winner’s catchphrase to tell Labour frontbencher Angela Eagle: ‘Calm down dear.’

February 2013 – One of the worst David Cameron dad jokes came to Ed Miliband in film season: ‘In this Oscar week, perhaps the best we can say is that Daniel Day-Lewis was utterly convincing as Abraham Lincoln, and the right honourable gentleman is utterly convincing as Gordon Brown: more borrowing, more spending, more debt.’

November 2013 – Another classic came after Miliband chose the Robbie Williams song ‘Angels’ as one of his Desert Island Discs. Cameron: ‘I think it is fair to say he is no longer a follower of Marx; he is loving Engels instead.’

December 2013 – In a festive themed jibe, Cameron takes aim at reported tensions between Miliband and Balls: ‘you don't need it to be Christmas to know when you're sitting next to a turkey’ and responds to Balls’ habit of pointing: ‘Oh we have a new hand gesture from the shadow chancellor. I would have thought that after the briefings in today’s papers, the hand gesture for the shadow chancellor should be bye-bye.’

April 2014 – The departure of Labour adviser Arnie Graf allows Cameron to mock him via his namesake, Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger: ‘Their top adviser – get this, Mr Speaker – is called Arnie and he has gone to America, but unlike Arnie he has said, ‘I’m not coming back.’

April 2014 – Labour backbencher Stephen Pound was considered one of the funniest MPs in recent Parliaments and for him the row over a bingo tax cut proved to be a godsend. Noting that the issue may not be the ‘bread and circuses of our age’ he asked ‘as leading lights of the coalition rush to express their love for them, will the Prime Minister dissociate yourself from the snobbish and disdainful comments made by your party chairman?’

April 2014 ­– Cameron’s response to Pound swiftly went viral: ‘I am sure the right honourable gentleman enjoys a game of bingo; it’s the only time he ever gets close to No 10!’

February 2016 – The shock election of Jeremy Corbyn offered a new way of doing PMQs, given his habit of crowdsourcing questions from the public to ask David Cameron. As a result the sessions became somewhat more lackluster. Humour was provided though when shortly before the Brexit referendum, Corbyn told Cameron: ‘Last week – like him – I was in Brussels, meeting with heads of government and leaders of European socialist parties, one of whom said to me…’ prompting Chris Pincher’s heckle: ‘Who are you?’

February 2016 – Cameron's mother Mary had recently hit the headlines after signing a petition against cuts to children's centres in his constituency. On the subject of the junior doctors dispute, Corbyn offered some ‘motherly advice’ prompting Cameron to reply ‘I think I know what my mother would say. I think she would look across the despatch box and she would say 'Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem'.’

June 2016 – In one of his final appearances at PMQs Cameron tells Corbyn, facing a Labour leadership crisis: 'It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there. It’s not in the national interest. I would say – for heaven’s sake, man, go.'

July 2016 – Cameron’s departure led to Theresa May’s election as Tory PM. Her first PMQs appearance begins with a strong start: ‘In my years in the House, I have long heard the Labour party asking what the Conservative party does for women. Well – it just keeps making us Prime Minister.’

July 2016 – As Corbyn refuses to resign despite a majority of Labour MPs coming out against him, May uses the Labour leader’s attack on job insecurity and potentially unscrupulous bosses against him: ‘I suspect that many Members on the Opposition Benches might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss—a boss who does not listen to his workers, a boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload and maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career. Remind him of anybody?’

February 2017 – After Corbyn criticises May’s response to President Trump, the Prime Minister hits back: ‘He can lead a protest, I'm leading a country’ in an assured display just weeks before her advisers encourage her to go for a snap election.

June 2017 – Election catastrophe engulfs May but she can still land a blow on Corbyn and his desire to dump Trident: ‘He says one thing to the many, and another to the few.’

December 2018 ­– Tempers turn sour during the Brexit years with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn being forced to deny calling Theresa May a ‘stupid woman’ during one ill-tempered PMQs.

September 2019 ­– May’s fall brings the ascent of Boris Johnson whose best PMQs line to date is arguably: ‘Jeremy Corbyn thinks our friends are in The Kremlin, and in Tehran, and in Caracas – and I think he’s Caracas!’

November 2020 – The exchanges between the two current leaders can be summarised by this one, with Johnson mocking his opponent: ‘It is entirely typical of Captain Hindsight’ and Keir Starmer responding ‘‘The prime minister talks about hindsight; I say catch up.’

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to steerpike@spectator.co.uk or message @MrSteerpike

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