Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) is in theory no different from the usual departmental ministers' questions, with the key difference being that instead of the questions being known ahead of time, a "loophole" is used to allow Members of Parliament (MPs) to ask unscreened questions.
You may have noticed that at the beginning of the PMQs an MP will stand up and say "Question number one, Mr Speaker". This question is referred to on the order paper - the agenda of parliamentary business for that day - and is usually to ask the PM to list his engagements that day. The PM will traditionally respond with:
"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."
although in certain circumstances, will pay tribute to current important happenings such as national holidays, notable deaths, or international events. The MP is then allowed a supplementary question, which is unscripted. The reason for this is that ministers may only be directly questioned on matters over which they are directly responsible, while supplementary questions may deviate.
This used to continue on, with each subsequent MP asking Question Number 1, and then a supplementary question, but at some point this was taken as a given and excluded from the proceedings. This means that every MP chosen to ask a question can do so without the PM's advance sight of the question. The leaders of the main opposition parties are the only MPs allocated more than one question, and therefore are the only MPs who can present rebuttal and follow up questions to the Prime Minister.
In practice, as MPs belonging to the governing party have an equal right to question the PM, these questions tend to be softballs such as "Does the PM agree with me that the country is far better off under our management than under the members seated opposite?", whereas questions from opposition MPs tend to be more testing.
While the Prime Minister does not have advance sight of the questions, it is reasonably easy to guess what topics will come up in the questioning, and the PM is well prepared by his team each Wednesday morning. You may also see the ministers seated next to the PM holding a large binder containing prepared attack lines, government policy, facts and figures on a large variety of topics, ensuring that an adequate response can be made under most circumstances. Outside of members of the Cabinet, Government special advisors, and other staff who help prepare the PM, it's impossible to say for sure the contents of this folder.
It should also be noted that while questions are not published, the list of MPs that are guaranteed to ask a question is published, giving the PM's team another insight into which topics may come up. This is, however, not an exhaustive list, as MPs who "catch the Speaker's eye" may also be called to ask a question.
In conclusion, while the Prime Minister does not have advance sight of any questions put to him by opposition MPs, there is significant preparation and briefing by all governmental departments beforehand to cover all topics which may come up, as well as planted questions by government MPs which allow the PM to get prepared attack lines and pithy soundbites alike across. There is definitely no autocue!
- Parliament.uk - Question Time
- A day in the life of David Cameron
- For the Record - David Cameron
- An Insider's Guide to Preparing for PMQs