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Every week (or so it seems) the Prime Minister is asked the same meaningless question and gives the same meaningless answer. For example:

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

Q1. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 15 March.

The Prime Minister (Mrs Theresa May)

I am sure that Members will want to join me in wishing people across the UK and around the world a happy St Patrick’s day this coming Friday. This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
(Hansard).

It seems that it is a tradition to ask the Prime Minister what his/her engagements are for the rest of the day at the start of each Prime Minister's Questions. The MP who asks the question gets to follow up with another, more substantial question.

The Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in the Commons every sitting Wednesday from 12pm to 12.30pm.

The session normally starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister's engagements. This is known as an 'open question' and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject.
(UK Parliament Website).

Is there an actual purpose behind this procedure or is it (as it seems to be, for me) a meaningless ritual which is just done for reasons of tradition and posterity? I've certainly never seen the Prime Minister actually detail their real engagements anyway. They always respond with the same scripted reply.

Is there, or has there ever been, a purpose behind asking the Prime Minister what engagements they have for the rest of the day?

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    I would like to be the first to welcome the Dark Lord to the site dedicated to helping people learn how to be better at politics. I'm sure nothing bad would come out of that. – user4012 Mar 23 '17 at 14:39
  • @user4012 Yeah, this username has sometimes also caused a few issues for me on the SciFi Stack Exchange where I spend most of my time... – The Dark Lord Mar 23 '17 at 15:01
  • Well, I changed my SFF username on this site; so as to no mix up the two personas. You know me from SFF, let's just say :) – user4012 Mar 23 '17 at 15:04
  • @user4012 Clever. I didn't realise you could do that. I can suss who you are from your bio and your highly distinctive photo. ;) – The Dark Lord Mar 23 '17 at 15:10
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    like this or this? ;) – user4012 Mar 23 '17 at 15:15
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TL;DR

It is what is known as an Open Question. By using such a a vague question as the opening strike the asker is then able to follow up with a Supplementary Question, unknown to the Prime Minister, about any aspect of her/his political business leaving the Prime Minister open to an unprepared response.

The question is not asked once, but asked by every MP who quizzes the PM but is dispensed with for formality after the first time it is asked.

By asking "What are you doing today?" it leaves the Prime Minister open to the response "Ah Ha! So you are not actually doing anything about this super important issue to the people of this country!" cue jeers from party benches

If the questioner supports the Prime Minister as a sycophantic then the the follow up might be "Ah Ha! So you will join me in congratulating this Government for doing this super important issue for the people of this country!" cue jeers from the party benches

Detail of the Procedure

Questions asked must relate to the responsibilities of the government department concerned. Commons oral questions are tabled by MPs at least three days in advance of the Question Time the relevant government department is due to answer. The questions are printed in the Commons Questions Book. The order in which the questions are asked is determined by the ‘shuffle’, carried out randomly by a computer.

The session normally starts with a routine question from an MP about the Prime Minister's engagements. This is known as an 'open question' and means that the MP can then ask a supplementary question on any subject.

The first formal question on the Order Paper, posed by simply saying "Number one, Mr. Speaker", is usually to ask the Prime Minister "if s/he will list his/her engagements for the day". The Prime Minister usually replies:

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Following the answer, the MP then raises a particular issue, often one of current political significance. The Leader of the Opposition then follows up on this or another topic, being permitted to ask a total of six questions. The Leader of the Opposition is the only MP who is allowed to come back with further questions.. The leader of the second largest party (currently the SNP, and previously the Lib Dems) gets 2 questions. Thanks to steve-melnikoff for the clarification.

Most MPs will table the same question about engagements and if they do, only their names will appear on the question book. After the first engagements question has been asked, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled, supplementary question.

This means, in theory, that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked of them. However, the Prime Minister will be extensively briefed by government departments in anticipation of likely subjects they could be asked about.

Most MPs table the same engagements question and so after it has been asked for the first time, any other MPs who have tabled the same question are simply called to ask an untabled question, meaning that the Prime Minister will not know what questions will be asked.

Additional Protocol

Before listing the day's engagements, the Prime Minister sometimes extends condolences or offers congratulations after significant events. During the Iraq War, Tony Blair introduced the practice of naming any British military personnel who had been killed in service since the last time he addressed the House. The practice has been continued by Blair's successors as prime minister. After this, the MP may ask a supplementary question about any subject which might occupy the Prime Minister's time.

Deviations

Occasionally the first question tabled is on a specific area of policy, not the engagements question. This, though, is quite rare as it would allow the Prime Minister to prepare a response in advance; the non-descript question allows some chance of catching him or her out with an unexpected supplementary question.

Use in Every Day Life

This type of evasive question and answer can be used by you in your daily life, either knowing or unknowingly by remembering the A, B, C rule of public response.

  • A, Answer lightly
  • B, Bridge to the topic you want
  • C, Capitalise/Communicate on the thing you need to say

So The Dark Lord, can you tell me why your project is late?

I am so glad you asked why my project is behind schedule. I have been meaning to talk about that. As you know schedules vary according to resource...

Bridge

...which is why I have authorised 3 new members of staff to join.

Capitalise

I want to say thanks for supporting this and it really feels like we have turned a corner. Thanks for stopping by, if you could just authorise the budget increase that would be great. We may need to take the money from Paul's project but I can absorb his work as well. Coffee?

Ministerial Questions

The MP's are conducting a Bridge by getting the PM to answer an exceptionally vague question so they can Respond-Bridge to any area of policy they want.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp Mar 23 '17 at 10:03
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    Rolled back the vandalized edit – bytebuster Jun 1 '17 at 22:35
  • The "Engagements" question hasn't always been used as an opener, in the 70s it was common for members to ask if the PM had any plans to visit their constituency. This allowed for a supplementary on any matter relevant to their constituents. – James K Jun 17 '17 at 15:36
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    So if I understand correctly, the system was originally designed to give the PM advance notice of what questions s/he would face, but this is now subverted by the "engagements" question to the point where it has become an empty ritual that is now slowly being streamlined out of existence. – Paul Johnson May 22 '18 at 9:58
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I'm sure I read somewhere that the reason to ask the Prime Minister about engagements for the day is because that forces the Prime Minister to come to the House to answer the question. If you ask about Health Policy, the Prime Minster can refer the question to the Health Secretary. Money questions to the Chancellor etc. Only by asking a question that is specifically about the Prime Minster, who has no portfolio, is the PM forced to come the House to answer.

  • Not really. Prime Minister's Questions is scheduled every week by the Speaker. The PM answers (the clue's in the name), no trickery required. – The Dark Lord May 21 '18 at 16:07

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