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Televised Jousts Set New Tone in British Campaign

Commons question periods heat up as leaders vie for camera's eye

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 1992


FOR the first time in the run-up to a British general election voters are enjoying a ring-side seat from which to gauge the caliber of the leaders who want to run the country for the next five years.

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It is called Prime Minister's Questions - PMQs to journalists - and it takes place twice a week in the House of Commons.

As the political temperature heats up for the vote now widely expected to be April 9, these 15-minute televised jousts at 3:15 p.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday between John Major and the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, are assuming great importance.

They are one of the best means for the public to decide how effective or otherwise the rival leaders are. Few countries provide their citizens with such regular opportunities to see top political leaders in open and often hostile confrontation with each other.

PMQs is a firmly established aspect of British politics. It provides an opportunity for members of Parliament to quiz the head of government on detailed questions of policy.

The entry of TV cameras into the Commons chamber two years ago has greatly sharpened the exchanges.

According to Robert Worcester, head of the MORI polling organization, PMQs give the prime minister and the leader of the opposition an opportunity to shine in front of the viewing public. How well - or how badly - they perform is reflected in public opinion surveys.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the small Liberal Democratic party, also is showing eagerness to hammer away during PMQs at alleged failings of Mr. Major and his government. Like Mr. Kinnock, he knows that with the cameras rolling and millions of viewers tuned in, it is one of the best ways of getting his policies and personality across to the public, less than 20 percent of which supported his party in opinion polls. Television influence

A Labour Party media adviser said: "We are certain that the TV images of the two leaders will be of vital importance in helping voters to make their choice on April 9. PMQs pits Kinnock directly against Major, and viewers can judge for themselves who has the best ideas - and who behaves in a prime ministerial way."

At the last general election, in 1987, voters did not have the benefit of televised Commons confrontations and had to rely on the leaders' appearances at formal press conferences and other public occasions, and on printed reports of speeches and exchanges in the lower house.

All that has now changed, and there is considerable drama in the televising of PMQs.

On Feb. 20, for example, for the fourth week running, Kinnock used the occasion to attack Major's handling of the recession that is causing negative growth in the British economy and pushing unemployment close to 3 million. He decided to taunt the prime minister with the statistics. Attacking Major

Standing on his side of the table running down the center of the Commons, he accused Major of being "not only the prime minister of recession but the prime cause of recession."

Major, he said contemptuously, was "groping around" to find excuses for failure.