Based on the 23 sessions of PMQs held during Theresa May’s first term of office, Peter Bull finds that her mean reply rate to questions from Jeremy Corbyn was just 11%. He also explains that her equivocation style was covert, characterised by ignoring or modifying questions, stating or implying that she had already answered questions, and acknowledging questions without answering them.
Not answering questions is an accusation commonly levelled at politicians, but to what extent is this actually true? In the analysis of what is known as equivocation, we have devised the term reply rate to refer to the proportion of questions that receive an explicit reply: the lower the reply rate, the more equivocal the politician. We have also devised a system for identifying different techniques of equivocation through which to date 37 ways of not replying to questions have been identified.
We have conducted a series of analyses based on 33 interviews with British party political leaders (broadcast between 1987 and 1992), which showed a mean reply rate of just 46%. A more recent study of 26 interviews with party leaders during the 2015 and 2017 general elections showed similar reply rates, with a mean of 38% across both elections (2015 election 43%; 2017 election 34%). Notably, however, reply rates for interviews with Theresa May were much lower – just 27% in two interviews she gave shortly after becoming PM, and again 27% in four interviews from the 2017 general election.
To further investigate political equivocation, we decided to extend these techniques of analysis to encounters between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition in Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). One study was focussed on former PM David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, based on the first 20 sessions of PMQs following Corbyn’s election as Leader of the Labour Party (12 September 2015). Following that appointment, Corbyn introduced a new technique to PMQs of sourcing questions from members of the public. However, no significant difference was found between Cameron’s reply rate to these public questions (23%) and to questions not so sourced (20%). Notably, these figures for PMQs are much lower than those quoted above for political interviews.
A second study was conducted based on all the 23 PMQs that took place during Theresa May’s first administration (20 July 2016 – 26 April 2017). It was found that her mean reply rate averaged over these sessions was almost half that of David Cameron’s (just 11%), a difference which is statistically highly significant. Further analyses were conducted to assess whether a distinctive equivocation style could be identified for Theresa May. Overall, her most frequently occurring forms of equivocation were as follows: makes political points (92%), ignores the question (43%), modifies the question (26%), personal attacks (23%), states or implies she has already answered question (19%), and acknowledges the question without answering it (16%) (each figure represent a percentage of the total number of May’s equivocal responses).
Two of these categories are unremarkable. The most frequently occurring category (making political points) has been shown in previous studies of broadcast interviews with three leading British politicians (Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, and John Major) to be much their most frequent form of equivocation. Although broadcast interviews undoubtedly differ markedly from PMQs, it scarcely seems surprising that in both situations the politicians equivocate most frequently through making political points. Also unremarkable is the category of personal attacks (23%), given that May’s five predecessors have been shown in a previous study to make frequent personal attacks on the Leader of the Opposition in PMQs.
However, the remaining four categories are interesting in the context of a distinction between overt and covert forms of equivocation. In an overt response, equivocation is quite open (for example, in declining to answer a question), whereas in a covert response, the equivocation is not explicitly acknowledged, or may even be concealed. Notably, all these four categories (ignores the question, states or implies she has already answered question, acknowledges the question without answering it, and modifies the question) can be regarded as covert, as argued below.
Thus, in acknowledging the question without answering it, Theresa May may give the misleading impression that an answer will be forthcoming. In ignoring the question, May does not even acknowledge that a question has been asked. In stating or implying that she has already answered the question, May conceals the fact that the question actually has not been answered. Responding to a modified version of the question is perhaps the most covert of all four techniques, because May thereby seemingly gives the impression of providing an answer, but in fact it is not to the question that has actually been posed.
In a previous study of public attitudes to PMQs, many of the respondents were infuriated by a perceived failure to answer a ‘straight question’, and by the scoring of party political points. The results of the above analysis confirm these public perceptions. Thus, in 23 sessions of PMQs, not only did May answer on average only 11% of the questions from the Leader of the Opposition, but also used a variety of covert techniques to equivocate, thereby failing to maintain any semblance of dialogue with her opposite number. Overall, the study provides ample empirical evidence to substantiate these public perceptions and their gross dissatisfaction with the dialogue (or lack of it) in Prime Minister’s Questions.
From a wider perspective, equivocation is politically important if it infuriates the public, and potentially turns them off politics, when voter apathy and poor electoral turnouts are recognised as serious problems for an effectively functioning democratic system. Equivocation is also important because of its potential to undermine political accountability, if at this showpiece parliamentary event the PM persistently avoids answering questions from the Leader of the Opposition. However, it is possible that the identification of different forms of equivocation through such analyses as described above may provide useful cues to pose more challenging and penetrating questions in PMQs – thereby to improve its political accountability, and hence to provide more effective parliamentary scrutiny.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.
Peter Bull is Honorary Professor in Psychology at the Universities of York & Salford.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).