Following President Barack Obama’s surprisingly successful question-and-answer session with GOP legislators a week or so ago, some commentators and politicians suggested that such impromptu encounters should be more frequent, comparing them with the British prime minister answering weekly questions in the British House of Commons. Judging by Monday’s White House talks between the president and the Republicans on pressing domestic issues facing the nation, the constructive tone of that earlier dialogue would seem to have been a flash in the pan.
But just for the sake of argument, could there be a case for a regular public “question time” of the president by the legislative branch? The U.S. constitutional set-up provides no parallel to the grilling Britain’s prime minister gets in that country’s parliamentary system. But unlike the U.S. president, the prime minister is not the head of state. The deference shown to the former has to be seen in that context. The British equivalent of the annual State of the Union address is the queen’s speech from the throne, outlining “her” government’s legislative program.
But there’s more than political theater to the Prime Minister’s Question Time (which has occupied 30 minutes each Wednesday afternoon since 1997, but before that lasted for 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays). It’s a grueling test of the incumbent’s quick wit, eloquence, and familiarity with the issues of the day. Having worked briefly for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, I saw first-hand the advance preparation that went into the short, often-rowdy bouts of political sparring.
Thatcher was a formidable parliamentary performer, but she went to the House having pored over an enormous folder of specially prepared briefing papers and memos anticipating the possible questions of the day. On one occasion, I was on hand to witness the tension question time could produce even in the Iron Lady.
After a sharp exchange with Labor opposition leader Neil Kinnock, she left the chamber and, without a word to anyone, climbed a narrow spiral staircase to the office assigned to the prime minister in the parliament building itself. She went inside alone as her secretary blocked anyone from following. Her practice after question time, the secretary explained, was to spend 20 minutes by herself before resuming the business of the day. He was too tactful to add that she needed to unwind.
Sure enough, 20 minutes later, the prime minister opened the door and said, “Who’s first?” On her desk inside was a large glass of Scotch whiskey — half-finished.