How past PMs fared at first prime minister's questions


As David Cameron faces his first Commons questions session as prime minister, here is a look back at his predecessors' debut appearances:


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Gordon Brown's first appearance was dominated by security issues

Gordon Brown had waited many years to take his bow at Prime Minister's questions, having spent the previous decade watching his colleague and rival Tony Blair see off a succession of Conservative leaders.

Pundits had latched on to Mr Blair's earlier reference to Mr Brown as the "clunking fist" and wondered whether the new prime minister would be able to land a knockout blow on David Cameron, who had impressed in his two years as opposition leader but was thought of by some in Labour as a lightweight.

There were worries about whether Mr Brown was quick enough on his feet to glide through the weekly Commons clash - as his predecessor had so often done.

The encounter, which took place days after attempted suicide bombings in London and Glasgow, was dominated by issues of security and terrorism.

Mr Brown sought to strike a consensual note by saying all parties should "show unity in the face of terror" but the two leaders clashed over the need for identity cards and the banning of extremist groups.

The prime minister announced a number of security-related initiatives but was jeered by the opposition when, in response to one question, he said he had "only been in the job for five days".

Press Verdict: (The Independent) Tory MPs were jubilant after the session. Labour MPs insisted the match was a draw. The mood was certainly happier on the Tory than Labour side as MPs left a crowded chamber.

TONY BLAIR - 21 MAY 1997

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PMQs became a once-weekly event under Tony Blair

Tony Blair's first PMQs was a historic occasion in several ways.

It was the first time a Labour prime minister had answered questions at the despatch box for 18 years. Although Mr Blair had shown a mastery of the Commons as opposition leader for almost three years, everyone wondered how he would perform on the other side of the chamber.

It also marked a big change in the format of the event, which Mr Blair moved from a twice weekly 15-minute session to a once-a-week 30 minute showdown.

Several Tory MPs chided Mr Blair - the youngest PM since 1812 - for what they said was a lack of consultation over the changes.

But the session was dominated by Labour's plan for a windfall tax on the privatised utilities, with questions about which firms would be liable and what the impact would be.

Former prime minister John Major, who had already announced his intention to step down as Conservative leader, said the policy could end up "hitting most those who have least" as firms would simply put up bills to compensate.

Mr Blair said the case for the measure was clear.

The privatised utilities had made "vastly excessive profits" and the proceeds of the tax would be used to help create jobs and give hope to millions of young people left behind by the previous government.

Press Verdict: (The Guardian) No great insights emerged. Far from it. The occasion was bathed in good intentions and goodwill. It was tranquil, even thoughtful.


Image caption,
John Major's first PMQs was dominated by arguments over the poll tax

John Major faced prime minister's questions on his second day in the job.

He was the first new prime minister to come to the despatch box in the TV age, coverage of Commons proceedings having begun the previous year.

Many Conservative MPs were looking forward to what they thought would be a more measured and emollient approach from their new leader after the forthright and occasionally confrontational style of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher.

But the government he led was in real trouble after 11 years in power and Labour leader Neil Kinnock was hoping to exploit divisions stemming from Mrs Thatcher's fall and the subsequent leadership contest.

The session began in humorous fashion when, as Mr Major rose to answer his first question, Labour MP Dennis Skinner shouted "resign". Mr Kinnock then offered the new prime minister his "personal congratulations" on his election as leader.

The future of the poll tax dominated exchanges. Mr Kinnock said it would save a lot of "time and money" to just abolish it.

Mr Major steered a middle course, saying a thorough review of the controversial tax was the right course of action. But he also claimed that Labour's support for local rates would be more regressive.

Press verdict: (Andrew Rawnsley, in The Observer) "Hair combed flat, specs polished, stripey tie neatly knotted, a nervous smile on his face, he could have been any other boy arriving for his first scarey day in the big school."


Image caption,
Margaret Thatcher made history when she took part in her first PMQs

Margaret Thatcher made history when she became the first woman to answer PMQs shortly after the Conservatives' 1979 election victory.

Although she had been opposition leader for four years, she was regarded as something of an unknown quantity and viewed with suspicion by some within her own party.

In the pre-television age, her first performance received less exposure than those which followed it.

Questions about Mrs Thatcher's style - very different from her Labour predecessor James Callaghan - cropped up in her very first question when Labour MP Clinton Davis asked about her plans for pensions and electricity prices, urging her not to be "too strident" in her replies.

In a sign of battles to come, she was then asked about possible trade union opposition to the government's agenda. She said she believed most trade union members understood laws were agreed by Parliament and seeking to obstruct them after their passage would mean the "end of democracy".

Although defeated at the election, Jim Callaghan still hoped to carry on as Labour leader.

Both he and Liberal leader David Steel raised the issue of British policy towards Rhodesia, a vexed subject at the time.