You’ve seen the Prime Minister on the news standing behind his despatch box, and you might even have already been on a ‘House of Commons’ tour, but did you know you can actually be present when all the the MPs are in session and witness the main event of the week? ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ (or PMQ for short). This being a weekly event every Wednesday at noon. Well you can, and I did – just last week.
It was during a House of Commons tour I attended as part of an Exeter University alumni event that our guide mentioned PMQ, and that if we wrote to our local MP and asked to specifically attend PMQ we might just receive an invite. So I asked my MP Peter Lilley and was invited.
A few months later in April the invite letter arrived stating that I’d been successful and I could take along Mrs Biggs. But with their being no Mrs Biggs yet I invited a close travel blogger friend who’d been very much interested in the EU referendum outcome just a week before. As luck up would have it this was the first Wednesday after both the EU referendum results and David Cameron’s resignation!
On the day itself you arrive at the Cromwell entrance of the Palace of Westminster (just past the Oliver Cromwell statue), show the security guards your invite letter and then walk down to the airport style security just 20 yards along. Once through you are guided to the entrance of the Westminster Hall, which for us at the time was hosting the Ethics of Dust exhibition. At the far end you head left though to Central Lobby and into the small Administration office where you sign a security form to collect your ‘Visitors’ Gallery’ passes. It’s in this atrium that the Speaker’s Procession arrives. Many people were there simply to watch this mini event so make sure you get near the front as they enter from opposite the Westminster Hall entrance before turning right into the Commons’ Corridor. You then follow behind them into the Commons’ Lobby whereupon guides show you up the stairs to a cloakroom where you are patted down once again. No cameras or phones are allowed inside hence the distinct lack of my own photos in this post! Finally you appear in the ‘Visitors’ Gallery’. It holds about 200 people in tiered seating with everybody wedged in quite tight shoulder-to-shoulder. Ask for a copy of the ‘Order Paper’ so you can see that day’s agenda.
We sat down at 11:45 with the previous session still going strong. At 11:55 we elbowed each other, “Look there’s Gove, and now Cameron! And there’s Corbyn”. You’d imagine there would be a lot of hush in the gallery but behind soundproof glass the stewards were able to talk reasonably loud when showing people where to sit. At 12.00 protocol dictates that an irrelevant question be asked about the Prime Minister’s business for the day, presumably with him giving the same generic reply each week.
You feel a little distant from the action behind this full glass partition but that had to go up when somebody through some purple powder over the previous barrier in the days of Tony Blair back in 2004. While we were there we noticed that the window itself could have done with a bit of a clean! 😉
Surprisingly the debate was far less raucous than I expected, especially considering the timing of our visit straight after Cameron’s resignation. Only once did Cameron “threaten” Corbyn with a 5 second outburst of “Go man Go” that took us all by surprise as it came out of absolutely nowhere. A pre-planned 5 second soundbyte for that evening’s news I wonder 😉
As most of the MPs questions are pre-planned it was delightful to hear a Tory MP ask whether 150 schoolchildren from her constituency would be able to pass on some Christmas cards that they’d designed to the Queen, when arguably 6 days post Brexit there were more important questions to ask! The MPs erupted into laughter but the speaker silenced them all by remarking “I want to hear about these pupils” and with that the MPs calmed down and the MP was allowed to finish her answer and await the Prime Minster’s quite amusing reply.
At 12:30 the session finished and ‘urgent questions and statements’ followed. Surprisingly many MPs left as this point, as did we soon after but not before an hour and 15 minutes of enlightening entertainment to see what it is that all those MPs get up to. So get writing to your local MPs to guarantee an entry rather than take a punt on queuing up on the actual day.
More questions about PMQ can be found on the official website.