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Question Time – PRIME MINISTER’S QUESTIONS

Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002

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, as Mr. Courtenay demonstrates.

Innovation and Logic

On 17 December 1942 a Member asked whether the titles Minister of Defence and Secretary of State for War should not under the circumstances be changed respectively to Minister for War and Secretary of State for the Army. WSC: “Sir, we must beware of needless innovation, especially when guided by logic.”

Cheap Demagogic Gestures

In 1951, Churchill reduced Ministerial salaries to set an example of economy. On 29 July 1952, Lt. Col. Lipton (Lab.) asked if this was not “a hollow gesture.” WSC: “I am looking forward to seeing the hon. and gallant Gentleman make a gesture of which it can be said that it is at any rate not less hollow.” Mr. W. Wyatt (Lab.): “Is it not a fact that when Income Tax has been deducted the saving is relatively negligible, and would it not be more appropriate if at his time of life the Prime Minister abandoned these cheap demagogic gestures?” WSC: “I think the hon. Gentleman is a judge of cheap demagogic gestures, but they do not often come off when he makes them.” Mr. Emmanuel Shinwell (Lab.): “In view of the castigations of the Rt. Hon. Gentleman on Members of the former Government, does he not realise that, even at the reduced salary, the Members of his Government are not worth it?” WSC: “The Rt. Hon. Gentleman is no doubt trying to live up to the cheap demagogic gestures mentioned by his hon. Friend.”

Welsh Rarebit

On 15 April 1953, Mr. Gower (Cons.) asked: “Can the Prime Minister state what course will be followed if a future British monarch should bear the name Llewellyn?” WSC: “I hope I may ask for long notice of that question.”

Timing of Elections

On 21 July 1942 Mr. De la Bere asked about holding a General Election before the end of 1942. WSC: “It would be most unusual and in my view contrary to the best precedents for any statement to be made forecasting the advice which in hypothetical circumstances should be tendered to the King in respect of a Dissolution of Parliament.” [A nicely framed reminder of the constitutional convention: before a general election, there must be a Dissolution of the existing Parliament.] Mr. De la Bere: “Is it not essential whilst perils press to reason calmly about holding a general election? Would the Prime Minister impress on Lord Beaverbrook the necessity for calm reasoning?” WSC: “I must embrace this opportunity of testifying my admiration for the principles of free speech and a free press.”

Baseball and Politics

On 21 July 1952 Mr. Fenner Brockway (Lab.) asked: “Is [the PM] aware that…the Iver Heath Conservative Party Association held a fête to raise money for party purposes to which it invited American Service baseball teams to participate for a ‘Winston Churchill’ trophy…and had a note from him saying he was honoured that his name was linked to the trophy?” WSC: “I read in the Daily Worker some account of this. I had not, I agree, fully realized the political implications that might attach to the matter, and in so far as I have erred I express my regret.” [Laughter.] Mr. H. Hynd (Lab.): “While Hon. Gentlemen opposite may try to laugh this one off, may I ask whether the Prime Minister would contemplate the attitude of his Hon. Friends if this incident had happened in connection with a Labour Party fête?” WSC:“I hope we should all show an equal spirit of tolerance and good humour.” Mr. Brockway (Lab.): “Can the Prime Minister estimate what would be the reaction of Mr. Eisenhower if British Forces participated in a Democratic Party celebration?” WSC: “I certainly should not attempt to add to the many difficult questions which are pending at the present time by bending my mind to the solution of that question.”

Bermuda Holidays

Sir Waldron Smithers (Cons., Orpington), 23 June 1953: “Would not the Prime Minister agree that the only way to improve the standards of living of backward races and to avert economic disaster is to allow all peoples to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest markets, because if goods cannot cross frontiers, armies will?” WSC: “Those seem to me, on the whole, unobjectionable sentiments.” Mr. Shurmer (Lab., Sparkbrook): “Will the Rt. Hon. Gentleman consider taking the Hon. Member for Orpington with him [to Bermuda] as it would please both sides of the House if he would take him and leave him there?” Sir Waldron Smithers: “On a point or order. May I tell you, Mr. Speaker, that I take no objection to that, but I wish the Hon. Member for Sparkbrook would go away too.” WSC: “I will try to answer that question. I earnestly hope that it will be arranged through the usual channels so that equal numbers on both sides of the House have this unfortunate experience offered to them.”

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