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