UCL Uncovering Politics

How Parliaments Question Prime Ministers

Episode Summary

This week we’re looking at how parliaments question prime ministers. How does questioning work? And does it actually do any good?

Episode Notes

How parliaments hold ministers (particularly prime ministers) to account is a fundamental part of parliamentary democracy. And one of those mechanisms of accountability involves asking questions. 

We take a good hard look at how – and how effectively – parliaments question prime ministers.

We are joined by Dr Ruxandra Serban, Associate Lecturer in Democratic and Authoritarian Politics here in the UCL Department of Political Science. Her research focusess directly on parliamentary questioning processes.


Mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcription


questions, prime minister, parliament, conflictual, questioning, mps, procedures, uk, parliamentary, cases, findings, adversarial, parliamentary democracies, conflict, politics, accountability, ministers, important, work, patterns


Alan Renwick, Ruxandra Serban


Alan Renwick  00:07

Hello. My name is Alan Renwick. And welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics – the podcast of the School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science at University College London.


Parliamentary democracy works through delegation. Voters elect a parliament, and parliament then delegates many important functions to the prime minister and other ministers.


Balancing such delegation are opposite flows of accountability: ministers are accountable to parliament; and MPs in parliament are, in turn, accountable at election times to voters. 


So how parliaments hold ministers, particularly prime ministers, to account is a fundamental part of parliamentary democracy. And one of those mechanisms of accountability involves asking questions.


This week, then, we're going to take a good hard look at how – and how effectively – parliaments question prime ministers.


And to do so, I'm delighted to be joined by our very own resident expert.


Dr Ruxandra Serban is Associate Lecturer in Democratic and Authoritarian Politics here in the UCL Department of Political Science. Her doctoral dissertation – which she also did here in the department – and much of her subsequent research have focused directly on parliamentary questioning processes. 


So Ruxandra, welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics. It's wonderful to have you on the podcast for the first time. 


And can we start by looking at how opportunities for MPs to ask prime ministers questions are structured in different countries? 


I guess quite a few of our listeners will be at least a bit familiar with Prime Minister's Questions in the UK, which is famous for the shouting and jeering and sniping and counter sniping. But how typical or atypical is that of how prime ministers are questioned in parliamentary democracies?


Ruxandra Serban  02:06

Thank you, Alan. Thank you for inviting me on the podcast. 


I think that's a very interesting question that sits at the heart of, as you were saying, processes of accountability in parliamentary democracies. 


So to start with, I think it's important to think about a few dimensions along which these procedures could be structured. 


So I think the first question to ask really is: do other parliamentary democracies have an opportunity for the prime minister to be questioned in parliament? 


And then we could ask: where is the prime minister questioned? Does that happen in the plenary or in committees? Is that a routine parliamentary business? So is the prime minister questioned perhaps once a week as in the UK, every day as another parliaments, or once a month – how often does that happen? 


And then it's also important to ask: is the prime minister questioned on their own? So is that an opportunity for them to be questioned by MPs? Or are they questioned collectively with other ministers? 


So along those lines, I think we can look at what is typical and what is exceptional across different democracies. 


And my study focused on 31 such cases, so 31 parliamentary democracies in Europe and in other parts of the world. 


The key finding there is that all parliaments that I looked at had a questioning mechanism that included the prime minister. So this is considered an important part of parliamentary politics in those countries. 


This questioning usually takes place in the plenary, so that is the typical option for questioning prime minister. 


Most of these parliaments – a majority of them, 25 out of 31 – do this routinely. So it's an established element of parliamentary business. Others, of course, also have exceptional opportunities for questioning the prime minister in the form of urgent questions, for example. 


In 22 out of these 31 democracies questioning is collective, so the prime minister is questioned together with ministers. And that happens in countries that we consider perhaps institutionally related to the UK such as Australia, Canada, but also other European democracies like France or Spain or Italy. 


The UK is uncommon in providing primarily individualised procedures questioning the prime minister in the way that we see at the PMQs. So the prime minister on their own. There are a few examples of other countries that do that as well. Ireland is an example where we have two plenary procedures for questioning the prime minister on their own as well as a committee procedure, as well as the Nordic democracies. Norway, Sweden and Denmark also have individualised opportunities for prime ministers to be questioned. 


So another way in which the UK is perhaps unusual is that it provides multiple procedures for which the prime minister can be questioned. So we have Prime Minister's Questions, also the Liaison Committee, which is a twice or thrice yearly sometimes opportunity for select committee chairs to question the prime minister, and this has been in place since 2002. But the prime minister can also be addressed questions after making statements in the House of Commons. In theory, they could also be addressed urgent questions, but that doesn't really happen in practice. So for example, since Tony Blair's premiership there have been around 28 urgent questions addressed to prime ministers in the UK; however, only two of those who have been answered by the prime minister themself. So conventionally, they don't tend to take urgent questions.


Alan Renwick  05:42

I wish to just explain that in the UK parliament an urgent question is a question asked on a very topical issue where there's not just one question followed by an answer, but there's a whole kind of debate that follows that question. So there's lots of opportunities if an urgent question is accepted for lots of MPs then to ask questions. And generally, that is a minister with particular responsibility in the area that is creating the crisis at that.


Ruxandra Serban  06:09

Yes, so prime ministers tend not to respond directly to those types of questions. But as we've seen there are many other opportunities for them to be questioned in parliament. 


Interestingly, in other parliaments urgent questions are actually the main instrument to question the prime minister. So we could take, for example, the Austrian parliament where, on paper, there is a collective questioning procedure for the prime minister to be questioned together with ministers. But conversations with parliamentary officials in that country revealed that actually this is seldomly used. And the main way in which MPs question the prime minister is through urgent questions. So there is some variation in which through these procedures are used across different contexts.


Alan Renwick  06:50

And I guess we should remember here that we're talking about parliamentary democracies. So you said a lot of the cases that you focus on are in Europe. And that's, I suppose, because most European democracies have parliamentary systems, so having that chain of delegation that I described in the introduction. Whereas quite a lot of other democracies around the world are presidential democracies, where there's a very different kind of relationship between presidents and legislatures. But here we're focusing particularly on parliamentary system. 


Ruxandra Serban  07:19

Yes, so we're focusing on countries where the executive is drawn from the legislature, and we have what is traditionally called this 'fusion of powers' between the executive and the legislature. So that may include also systems that are classified as semi presidential, like France, where we have a separately elected president but we still have a government drawn from parliament. So as long as that is the core element of that political system, we can still refer to them in these delegation accountability terms.


Alan Renwick  07:49

Yeah. And you talk there about all sorts of variation in terms of the kind of formal structures of parliamentary questioning across these different democracies. 


Can we say anything about the kind of feel of parliamentary questioning in different democracies? Do we find that in some places, it's very kind of sombre and serious and in other places, as in the UK, it's all very rumbustious and lots of shouting and so on. Do we see patterns in that as well?


Ruxandra Serban  08:15

That's an interesting question. So some places are famous for how adversarial their questioning is. The UK is such a case, but Australia is another case of famously adversarial and confrontational questioning. Canada also emerges as such a case both through media reports and also recent academic studies. 


Other places tend to look a bit less confrontational, at least on the face of it. And there's an example from Europe where, in Germany, there was some debate in the press around how the UK model of PMQs is a desirable form of accountability because we have the head of government coming to parliament recurringly to be questioned. And we need that kind of confrontational aspect in our politics. It was thought that was something that was missing. So the German parliament introduced the Chancellor's Question Hour a few years ago. It has not caught on quite as it was hoped, I think. And it was still a much more polite type of debate. 


But I think we can see some of this tendency of parliaments to look to the UK as a model of parliamentary accountability because the prime minister is forced to go through this accountability exercise very often. 


Alan Renwick  09:38

I think lots of people in the UK who are used to thinking of PMQs as this rather terrible occasion when the politicians just shout at each other might be rather surprised to hear of the UK system being used as an example of kind of good practice in other places around the world. But I guess that gets to the question of: what is questioning of prime ministers actually for? 


I mean, I set it up at the start very much in terms of accountability. And a lot of people are concerned that the confrontational exchanges that take place in the UK aren't actually very effective for accountability. And there's lots of shouting and fury, but not terribly much light is shone on matters very often. At least people think that. But actually, maybe there are other functions more around kind of bringing the public into parliamentary processes, making people aware of what's happening. 


How would you characterise the functions of questioning prime ministers?


Ruxandra Serban  10:38

I think that's a very important question to ask about these mechanisms. And one way to think about it is in the political science terms of what are the intended functions of this institution versus the ones that emerge through sort of established practice. 


So we might say that these procedures were designed to facilitate requests for information, for explanations, demanding that action is taken on particular things. Criticism as well is part of that to an extent. 


But we've seen in time different practices emerging, so potentially different functions emerging for these procedures. One would be expressing disagreement. And creating this sort of conflictual atmosphere appears to be an emerging function of these procedures. Another would be representing constituents, so carrying out campaigns on behalf of constituents. It's certainly a central feature of places that have a strong electoral constituency link – campaigning on behalf of constituents during questioning. 


So there are different things that might be going on, aside from just asking the prime minister a straightforward question about the government's policies or something. 


I just wanted to add a quick thing, perhaps, which is that it's worth asking the degree to which these procedures perform their intended functions well, but also to ask a more exploratory question around what other functions they perform and what is the role of those within parliament more broadly. 


One thing from the broader legislative studies literature is that parliamentarians tend to use different parliamentary procedures for different purposes and to use different types of rhetoric across different types of procedures. So we might see, for example, a very tense atmosphere at PMQs followed by a very serious debate on a serious policy matter. So that shift can look quite shocking from the outside, but it's just a reflection of the fact that different procedures perform different roles within parliament.


Alan Renwick  12:46

Let's get on then to your particular study. And in this study, you focus on the role of conflict in the questioning of prime ministers. Why was that an area that you particularly wanted to focus on?


Ruxandra Serban  13:00

So as we were saying earlier, conflict seems to be an established part of questioning in some parliamentary democracies. And to an extent that is surprising to many people looking at parliament. And it's often criticised both by the public and in the media quite rightly asking whether this is actually impeding parliament from performing its accountability function well. So it's worth asking is this conflictual questioning producing any negative outcomes for parliament or for democratic politics more broadly. 


But before we begin to think about outcomes, it's important to ask: to what extent is this conflictual type of questioning happening? To what degree do MPs use their questions in an adversarial way? How does that vary across different parliaments? And what forms does this adversarial questioning take? So is it about attacking the prime minister and the government or is it just about criticising policy?


Alan Renwick  13:58

And that's what you do in this study. As ever, on this podcast, we like to talk about the methodology before we get to the findings because it's important to see how we get to those findings in order to understand what we should make of the findings. 


Do you want to just walk us through how you study the place of conflict in parliamentary questioning.


Ruxandra Serban  14:19

So drawing on the previous study that looked at the population of parliamentary democracies that have a questioning mechanism, I looked at four case studies to understand whether questioning the prime minister is conflictual in these cases, to what degree, and which parliamentary actors are involved. 


So, I sort of did that at two levels. On the one hand, an in-depth case level study of parliamentary rules of procedure, of the roles of different parliamentary actors in these parliaments. And secondly, looking at what their questions actually contained – whether they included conflictual remarks and who those conflictual remarks were addressed to. 


Alan Renwick  15:05

So this involves actually reading through all of the questions in these parliamentary sessions and you coding the content of those questions to see whether there was conflict present and what kind of conflict was present.


Ruxandra Serban  15:18

Yes, so it involves selecting... So just to talk a bit about the corpus that I looked at. 


So I selected 30 questioning sessions for each of these four cases. And I'll talk about case selection in a moment as well. 30 questioning sessions, and within those I coded – as you were saying – each question based on, firstly, whether or not it included a conflictual speech act or remark, and then classifying those conflictual remarks into different types. So on the one hand, that tells us whether there is any conflict happening at the question level, but it also gives us a bit more detail about what kind of conflict is being performed and to whom it is addressed.


Alan Renwick  15:57

And just tell us a bit more about the four cases that you choose to focus on. 


Ruxandra Serban  15:59

Yes. So these four cases are similar in the sense that they're all parliamentary democracies that offer a routine opportunity for MPs to question the prime minister. On the one hand, we have the UK and Ireland. They both include individualised procedures – PMQs and oral questions to the Taoiseach respectively.


Alan Renwick  16:20

The Taoiseach being the Irish Prime Minister. 


Ruxandra Serban  16:21



Alan Renwick  16:22



Ruxandra Serban  16:22

In both of these cases, I looked at one term in office of one prime minister. And in both of these cases, the prime minister had been in office for about five years. And they had led coalition governments. So there are some similarities between these cases that then allow us to explore to what degree they are dissimilar in other ways.


Alan Renwick  16:41

So listeners familiar with British politics will be able to work out the David Cameron was the prime minister in the UK, he being the only one who's led a coalition government anytime recently. 


And in Ireland, Enda Kenny I think was the prime minister you were focusing on, so the prime minister around about the same time as David Cameron was in charge.


Ruxandra Serban  16:58



And my other pair of cases included Canada and Australia. So two cases of collective questioning of the prime minister, where the two prime ministers in question were Julia Gillard and Stephen Harper. And they were both leading minority governments at the time and were in office for about two years. So those again allowed us to observe some of the variation in how prime ministers are questioned, given all of these similarities otherwise.


Alan Renwick  17:24

So these are all English speaking democracies of kind of, broadly speaking, we can think of them as being part of the Westminster tradition. And they've all in their history developed from the Westminster parliament.


What was your thinking and focusing on those rather than looking at some of the European cases that we were mentioning earlier?


Ruxandra Serban  17:41

So these cases share many important similarities, like we've said, in terms of offering similar types of procedures for questioning the prime minister, but also more broadly similarities in terms of the roles of parliamentary actors. So they all share a government versus opposition type of dynamic, as you were saying, that is typical to the Westminster tradition. Parliamentary roles are also equivalent in these cases, so we have a government and an opposition that is led by a leader of the opposition. So these similarities allow us to actually focus on variation in types of language that is used, and to put other things aside or to hold them constant as we would say.


Alan Renwick  17:41

Yes. So lots of the listeners to the podcast, of course, are students thinking about their own research projects and the importance here of not having too much variation so you can actually pinpoint where differences might be coming from. That is a key feature of many research designs. 


And I guess another question that some of our student listeners might be interested in is that increasingly popular in political science in recent years has been more automated forms of textual analysis, where rather than you reading through and painstakingly working out how to categorise each individual question, you put the material through a computer program that identifies the patterns in respect to whatever it is you're interested in. Why did you think you were that it was worthwhile doing that really detailed work of reading through yourself rather than seeking computer-based analysis?


Ruxandra Serban  19:14

I think there is a lot of merit definitely in computer-based analyses of text. And I think they answer very important research questions. 


I think for this project the case study approach also had a lot to bear on this. So on the one hand, we're looking at mapping patterns of conflictual behaviour, but also situating them within the particularities of each case. And this is where the comparative case study approach comes in. So, it was important to get a deeper reading of parliamentary debates in each of these cases to try to work out the purposes of parliamentary communication and to get a more inductive feel for different types of conflict strategy. So given all of this, I felt that the qualitative reading of parliamentary debates was more appropriate in this case. 


Alan Renwick  20:01

Great, thank you. 


Let's move on then to the findings – the key bit. So tell us, what did you find in terms of the presence of conflict in these different parliamentary questioning settings?


Ruxandra Serban  20:13

So I'd like to focus on three key findings. 


The first one would be about patterns of conflict. So during the period analysed here, I think the Canadian question period surprisingly came up as the most conflictual. 


And again, I should say these focus on questions to the prime minister specifically. Canada and Australia also include questions to ministers. It could well be that within these debates, questions to ministers were a bit less adversarial. 


But on questions to prime ministers, specifically, in Canada, about 75% of them were conflictual. So that would be around eight to nine questions out of the 11 asked to the prime minister each session. That's quite a lot of questions that are conflictual in that sense. 


The UK and Australia came almost tied on second place with around 40% of questions including some form of conflictual remark. 


And then Ireland had a surprising low amount of conflictual questions with around 13% of questions to prime minister including some form of conflict. 


So this means that there is some variation around MPs using conflictual language in these parliaments and in these mechanisms for questioning the prime minister. Some of these patterns may be related to the context of each premiership that I was looking at or to the personality of different leaders. So Julia Gillard was facing a famously adversarial leader of the opposition at the time, for example, where-


Alan Renwick  21:45

That was Tony Abbott? 


Ruxandra Serban  21:45



And we could expect politicians to be behaving slightly differently when they're dealing with a different political opponent. 


However, my more recent research into Canadian question period confirmed some of these findings in the sense that, moving on to the Trudeau premiership, around 80% of questions for the prime minister are conflictual. So this is a pattern that holds over time and over in different premierships. And it kind of resonates with evidence from other sides of the politics of these countries from the media, from speaking with MPs in some of these countries. 


So we have reasons to believe that these patterns overall hold over time. So even if we might notice some variation across different premierships, the basic fact is that MPs are confrontational when they question the prime minister in these countries.


Alan Renwick  22:39

So that's the first of your three categories. Is the second one going to explain that or are there further patterns that we're going to identify before we get to explanation? 


Ruxandra Serban  22:49

Yes, so I think I would like to go to the other two key findings first before going into more depth on some of them. 


Another interesting finding was that even though these parliaments have extensive rules for what is and what isn't admissible in parliamentary debate, the speaker primarily intervened to police noise, so contextual conflict, rather than to police any form of conflictual language. So this suggests that there is some form of informal threshold around what is acceptable in these parliaments. 


Again, even though we have these quite extensive rules around what represents acceptable or parliamentary language, there seems to be a more local social norm, which is that MPs can be uncivil so long as they're not unparliamentary. So speakers very rarely intervene to curb this kind of adversarial language in that sense. 


Alan Renwick  23:45

So unparliamentary means language that is definitely not allowed. So if someone starts swearing in parliament, then that would not be allowed. But merely being rude about the prime minister or about someone else in that setting – that's okay, that's acceptable according to the-


Ruxandra Serban  24:02

Yes. So there seems to be, as I was hinting at, some sort of parliamentary norm around what constitutes acceptable uncivility among parliamentarians within a debate. And as we will perhaps talk later, this is quite different from what we members of the public recognise as a social norm in our workplaces. It's not something we would do be our everyday professional and social lives.


Alan Renwick  24:25

So important. And then point three?


Ruxandra Serban  24:27

Point three is about government backbench behaviour. And this points to a broader point in the paper about party discipline and the extent to which political parties control what members ask. And I should say that among all parliamentary democracies, these procedures sort of sit on a spectrum, from very little, let's say, involvement from political parties – maybe some coordination – all the way to parties handing out questions to MPs to ask during these sessions. So it's important to think about party control as well when looking at these sessions.


So one finding that I thought was surprising in that sense is the behaviour of government backbenchers. Based on traditional models of party behaviour, we will expect government backbenchers to be attacking the opposition. Interestingly, this only seems to happen in the UK, so during PMQs. 


On the one hand, this has to do with the degree to which government backbenchers have access to questioning the prime minister. And among the countries I studied, this happens in the UK, Australia and to a much lesser degree in Canada. So, on the other hand, among procedures that allow government backbench access, only in the UK do we see conflictual behaviour or some sort of critical language from government backbenchers-


Alan Renwick  25:47

-Towards the Prime Minister.


Ruxandra Serban  25:49

So directed at the opposition, primarily, but occasionally also directed at the prime minister, so criticising the government for various things. So we observed a degree of independent mindedness among UK government backbenchers at PMQs that we don't really see elsewhere. 


So we could think of that inductively as an observable implication of perhaps less party discipline at PMQs compared to other contexts. Again, it's all relative. So we might think in the UK that there's actually a lot of party coordination among MPs at PMQs, but actually, in other contexts, that level of party discipline is much higher. And it reduces government backbenchers to only asking helpful questions and not making any sort of critical remarks of their own.


Alan Renwick  26:37



And going back to the first of your findings there – the finding of the highest level of conflict being in Canada, and then Australia and the UK being intermediate rather than having the lowest level of conflict. Now, I am fascinated by what might explain that. And I guess the question is: is it just a kind of artifact of some of the institutional structures and the rules around parliamentary questioning? Or does it reflect deeper patterns in the nature of politics? I mean, have we learnt here that Canadian politics is actually very conflictual, or is it more just about the institutional rules setting?


Ruxandra Serban  27:15

It was indeed a surprising finding. So, again, within the case study approach, I tried to link that firstly to the particularities of the different systems, but also to think about what else could explain these patterns aside from the specific country particularities. 


So one aspect is definitely the fact that the Canadian question period has short time limits for questions. So questions are around 30 seconds, which would lead perhaps politicians to use their time to score a quick political point. That is one aspect. 


Another aspect which didn't actually emerge from this study but from a later project that I started doing is the fact that questions are often handed to politicians by their political parties. So in Canada questioning is to a large extent controlled by political parties. There is a committee that meets to coordinate parties' strategy at question period every week, and certain questions are handed over to politicians to ask during question period. So overall, there is less control over the language that is used by individual MPs. So that's one aspect of it. 


It sort of takes the... If we think about all of these cases, their politicians do have incentives to act collectively – cohesively – as political parties to make their opponents look bad and so on. But in cases where party discipline is very strict, that is sort of taken to an extreme, where, you know, it all becomes about scoring political points, and less about other things.


Alan Renwick  28:58

And would I be right in remembering that in Canada, in contrast to at least some of the other cases, almost all of the questions are asked by opposition MPs, and therefore they're likely to want to be conflictual towards the prime minister in a way that is less likely to be the case elsewhere?


Ruxandra Serban  29:17

Yes, that is definitely one aspect of it. It's an artifice of the patterns of questioning in these countries. So in Canada, the prime minister, at least in the period that I studied, the prime minister used to be questioned at the start of each question period session. And afterwards, other ministers would be questioned. The leader of the opposition, party leaders, and some prominent government backbenchers would be the first on the list to address questions to the prime minister. 


In that sense, that's different from the UK model where the speaker calls members from different sides of the House. So you often get this alternation between an opposition question and then a government question. 


So the prime minister rarely has in Canada a helpful backbench question to fall back on, at least in the period that I studied here. So that definitely inflates the numbers a bit in terms of levels of conflict because we observe that the people who are most likely to be conflictual are also questioning the prime minister.


Alan Renwick  30:19

You've thought about this a lot. So what do you think are the key takeaways from this?


Ruxandra Serban  30:23

I think a few key implications to think about firstly for parliaments and for the public and democratic politics more broadly. I think it's good to start with the idea that parliaments are spaces for disagreement, so the opposition should have opportunities to criticise the government, to criticise policy, and government backbenchers too. Obviously, scrutiny and accountability do involve criticism. 


But there are some questions around how criticism and disagreement are expressed. Is it really necessary to use insults? Do the important questions about how the country is governed need to be asked in the form of jokes? Beyond the distinction between civil and uncivil language, this is about the form of communication that MPs choose to express this disagreement. 


Secondly, if we think about negative effects on scrutiny, we don't really have a definitive answer on this. But there a few things that are worth thinking about. 


One is, if these questions are dominated by political attacks, there's less time obviously for the kind of in-depth scrutiny that parliament should be able to perform. Of course, the argument is that in the UK, there are many other procedures that perform that function, and that PMQs perhaps doesn't and performs other functions well. But it's still worth thinking about whether, again, all of those types of language are necessary. 


And secondly, confrontational questions encourage confrontational answers. So overall, we have a less than ideal deliberative interaction here between MPs and the prime minister. 


Alan Renwick  32:09

I was really struck by a sentence you wrote in a blog post that you did for the Constitution Unit blog in the autumn, where you said: 'Whilst adversarial questioning may be seen as entertaining and captures the attention of the public, it also normalises the type of negative aggressive debating style, paints a particular picture of what democratic politics looks like, and what parliaments do.' 


So we often have this idea that PMQs in the UK in its very robustious form is a good thing because it captures people's attention and gets people looking at politics. But actually, it gets them looking at a really terrible bit of politics, in some ways, at least, in terms of people just being really rude to each other and uncivil towards each other, in a way that perhaps actually gives a harmful impression of how politics functions and the role that parliament is playing in particular.


Ruxandra Serban  33:03

Yes, absolutely. So we do have some social science evidence around what the public thinks about these procedures, but the evidence there is mixed. 


And so we have some evidence from surveys and focus groups saying that the aggressive nature of PMQs puts the public off politics. But other studies, for example, a study of oral questions in 22 countries, found that these mechanisms that allow a spontaneous interaction actually, as you were saying, capture the attention of the public. 


So there's something puzzling going on here that is perhaps worth more empirical exploration – the fact that adversarial questioning captures the attention of the public. 


But as you were saying, it's also the fact that often this is the most visible side of parliament for most of the public. So even though let's say parliament is doing a much better job at scrutiny in select committees, or backbench business debates, or any other kinds of parliamentary business that we might think of, those are not visible to the public as much as PMQs is. There is perhaps an element here of parliament thinking about how to advertise those procedures a bit more. 


Or perhaps we as social scientists could think about how to design studies that show members of the public both aspects of parliament before drawing conclusions about what they think about PMQs. So not just asking them about PMQs, but about PMQs in the context of other procedures. 


Alan Renwick  34:32

We're very much up against time. But that leads me on to just one final question that I must ask. What are you working on now? Are these the sorts of questions that you want to be doing further research into?


Ruxandra Serban  34:44

Thank you. So I continue to think we now know more about these questioning procedures and how they work. But in some sense – in some aspects – this image continues to be a bit patchy. So I continue to work on some of these questions. 


One of them looks at, as I've hinted at, Canada, where there's been a recent procedural change – a move from questioning the prime minister always collectively together with other ministers, to actually dedicating a slot every Wednesday for the prime minister to be questioned on their own. So this happened during Trudeau's premiership. And it offers us a very interesting political science opportunity to see the before and the after and to test some hypotheses around how behaviour may have changed. 


Alan Renwick  35:29

And that's another case of a country going closer to the UK model, rather as we were talking about with Germany.


Ruxandra Serban  35:35

Yes, surprisingly so. 


So far, just to preview some findings, there appears to have been no change in how politicians behave between the two questioning models. 


So I'll report back more when I have more findings. But for now, this is the thing that I'm focusing on. 


And I'm hoping to explore other questions around party control as well. 


Alan Renwick  35:55

Fantastic. Well, we will definitely have you back on to the podcast when you have more findings from that project. 


But this has been so interesting. Thank you so much, Ruxandra – really fascinating to hear this research agenda. 


We have been discussing the article 'Conflictual behaviour in legislatures: Exploring and explaining adversarial remarks in oral questions to prime ministers', by Ruxandra Serban. It's published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, and it's currently available online on early view. 


We also mentioned a blog post by Ruxandra published on the Constitution Unit's blog back in the autumn. And we'll make sure the details of both of those – the article and the podcast – are in the show notes for this episode. 


Next week, we'll be looking at the regulation of online speech. 


As ever, to make sure you don't miss out on that or other future episodes of UCL Uncovering Politics, all you need to do is subscribe. You can do so on Apple, Google Podcasts or whatever podcast provider you use. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could take a moment of time to rate or review us too. 


I'm Alan Renwick. This episode was produced by Alice Hart and Eleanor Kingwell-Banham. Our theme music is written and performed by John Mann. 


This has been UCL Uncovering Politics. Thank you for listening.