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QUESTION TIME – PRIME MINISTER’S QUESTIONS

Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02

Page 43

Edited and annotated by Paul H. Courtenay

Question Time is that period in the Parliamentary week where Members are allowed to ask the Prime Minister any question, governed only by decorum and the judgment of the Speaker as to whether they are genuinely asking questions or (commonly) giving a speech. Churchill was a master of Question Time, and Mr. Courtenay provides examples of his wit and command.


Restraint in Public Statements

(Or: Donald Rumsfeld’s Model)

On 30 September 1942 a Member asked the Prime Minister to urge all persons with access to inside information to exercise restraint in public statements or speculations about Second Front possibilities. WSC: “I welcome this opportunity of again emphasising the undesirability of public statements or speculations as to the time and place of future Allied offensive operations, even though such statements or speculations are based on inferences and not, as the question would seem to imply, on inside information.”

Invasion Warnings


In 1943, when Churchill announced that church bells would no longer be reserved for use as a warning of invasion, he was asked what alternative arrangements had been made. WSC: “Replacement does not arise. I cannot help thinking that anything like a serious invasion would be bound to leak out.”

Foot-and-Mouth

Mr. Robert Boothby (Cons., Aberdeen), 6 May 1952, after WSC refused to transfer authority for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease in Scotland to the Scottish Office in Edinburgh: “Is my Rt. hon. Friend aware that there is a torrent of complaints from Scotland at the present time?” WSC: “I am sure my hon. Friend would be fully capable of giving full vent to any such torrent, but the difficulty is that we are not sure that foot-and-mouth disease is as well educated on the subject of borders and questions arising out of them as he is.” Mr. Boothby: “I beg to give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment.” WSC: “I am afraid I cannot undertake to be present when this new red herring is drawn across the Border.”

Gladstone Comparisons

Mr. Harold Davies (Lab.), 28 May 1952: “Does the Rt. hon. Gentleman realise the House is getting less information on the Korean situation than his equally great predecessor Mr. Gladstone was giving the House in the Crimean War?” WSC: “I am afraid I have not at my fingers’ ends the exact part which Mr. Gladstone took in the Crimean War. It was even before my time.”

More Red Meat

One of Labour’s favourite pastimes was to imply that the Tories had forsaken the pledges on which they were elected. Where, they would ask, was the red meat the Tories had promised? Mr. Gordon Walker (Lab.), 8 July 1952: “Does the Rt. hon. Gentlemen’s answer mean that [this] part of Britain Strong and Free [the Conservative Party Manifesto]…has now been abandoned?” WSC: “Nothing that we set out in our statement of policy has now been abandoned, and we all look forward to the moment when we shall be able to ram red meat down the throats of hon. Members opposite.”

Unemployment

Mr. Douglas Jay (Lab.), was one of a small group of Labour economists who had advised the previous Government on economic projections. On 23 July 1952 Mr. Jay asked: “Would we be right in inferring from the Prime Minister’s answer [on what steps the Government was taking to guard against unemployment] that he himself has given no thought to this question?” WSC: “That would be a rather hazardous assumption on the part of the Rt. hon. Gentleman, who has not, so far as I am aware, at any time in his Parliamentary career distinguished himself for foresight.”

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