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.
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.
The prime minister then got up and replied that not only Britain but the entire world was suffering from economic slowdown. He claimed that the "right circumstances" for recovery were in place. Looking directly at Kinnock, who was sitting only a few feet across from him, he shouted: "The people of this country won't let you throw that away."
Conservative and Labour officials agree that PMQs are becoming more heated. A Kinnock supporter said: "We hope the prime minister will really loose his cool some time soon, but so far it hasn't happened."
No sooner had Kinnock attacked the prime minister than Mr. Ashdown rose and took up a similar refrain. "Our economy," he said, "is in a mess because the government has created the second recession in a decade. New figures on growth show that recovery is as far away as ever."
Of the two main leaders, Kinnock has the harder task in trying to create an impact in these 15-minute assaults on the prime minister. Major has all the advantages of being the man in power. In preparing for PMQs he has the benefit of the civil service research facilities to prepare for PMQs. He arrives in the chamber with a thick index-file of answers to questions he may be asked.
The art of PMQs, from the opposition leader's standpoint, is to raise issues the prime minister has not anticipated.
There are signs that by exploiting the government's economic embarrassments Kinnock may be improving his public image.
Mr. Worcester says that in the 15 months since Major has been prime minister the Labour leader had a less impressive rating among voters, particularly women. In a MORI poll on Feb. 9, however, Kinnock's rating rose by two points compared with the previous month. Labour strategists quickly claimed their leader's ability to exploit PMQs to embarrass the prime minister in front of the Commons cameras was an important factor in this.
Conservative officials replied that the opposition leader starts from a low base. At the last MORI count Major was still ahead of Kinnock by 56 percent to 34 percent. In the same MORI poll Mr. Ashdown's popularity jumped 13 percent - a remarkable achievement, given that before the poll was taken he admitted to having had an affair with a secretary some years earlier.
Exactly how strong an influence televised PMQs is on public perceptions of Britain's political leaders is impossible to measure. Both Major and Kinnock, however, are said by their advisers to attach increasing importance to their PMQ performances. They are even beginning to dress better, thanks to regular scrutiny by the television cameras. Dressing for success
A long-serving member of the parliamentary press pool from which the verbal contests are reported has spotted two clues to this: "When the two leaders first faced each other across the Commons in December 1990, they wore single-breasted suits, and John Major looked rather scruffy. Now they both wear nicely cut double-breasters and have their hair cut at least once a week. It's obviously for the cameras."