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Happy Birthday PMQs

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It was 24 October 1961 that old Etonian Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan faced Labour's leader Hugh Gaitskill across the dispatch box in the first session of Prime Minister's Questions.

He answered questions about his Government's ongoing negotiations to join the European 'Common Market.' Wind forward fifty years and our current old Etonian Tory Prime Minister is going to spend this 50th birthday of PMQs frantically trying to force his backbenchers not to vote for a referendum to get us out of it again.

In 50 years, 10 Prime Ministers have walked into this weekly bear pit and answered questions from 19 Leaders of the Opposition and countless backbenchers looking to score a hit. None of them enjoy it because it is a genuine test of their character and a barometer of party morale for the Opposition as well as the Government.

No other Parliament has anything quite like it. Like trapeze artists performing on the high wire without a safety net, triumph and disaster lurk in every moment and no-one quite knows what is going to happen next. That's why it is watched in fascination around the world. And that is why amidst all the barracking and heckling it has provided some very revealing and politically decisive moments over the years.

Think of Mr's Thatcher's 'No No No' on European integration. This final straw moment triggered the plot amongst exasperated Tory Europhiles which finally brought her down.

Gordon Brown's Freudian slip about saving 'the world' instead of merely the banks caused much hilarity and did him damage close to an election. Three little words albeit repeated over and over again, destroyed six years of Tory rebranding of David Cameron in one telling moment. His 'calm down dear' blunder to me revealed his inner Flashman, a trait his minders had tried hard to hide. The mask slipped and millions of women clocked it.

Then there was the purple flour incident when campaigners evaded Common's security by smuggling flour filled condoms into the gallery in their underpants and successfully lobbing one at Tony Blair. It was only after we had all evacuated the Chamber that the awful possibility dawned on the House Authorities that they might have contained anthrax or something worse. The result was the installation of the screen which now separates the public gallery from the newly flour-proof Commons Chamber.

Even though there are those that loathe it, there is no way that the reputation of a Prime Minister or a Leader of the Opposition who persistently failed at Prime Minister's Questions would not suffer. It is a test which has to be regularly faced and passed too.

If further proof of its value were required we need only remember that Prime Ministers hate it. And a look at the recess dates recently announced for next year reveal that the House will rise six times out of seven on a Tuesday ensuring that there will be no Prime Minister's Questions that week. I rest my case.

Angela Eagle is MP for Wallasey and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.

Around the Web

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