Taming Parliament's `Bearpit'

Many MPs object to Major's move to civilize the House of Commons's question period

BETTY BOOTHROYD, Speaker of the British House of Commons, has a voice any drill sergeant would be proud to possess.

But even her thunderous reprimands of unruly members have been failing to restore order to the world's oldest parliamentary chamber, and Prime Minister John Major has decided it is time for reform. He told the Commons on June 14 that he would like to start with reforming the ``prime minister's questions'' (widely called PMQs), a twice-weekly set-piece clash in which for 15 minutes he is grilled by members of Parliament and required to provide satisfactory answers.

The questions can be on virtually any subject, and the prime minister is not told in advance what they will be.

No order in the House

The resulting confrontation produces more uproar than any other item of parliamentary business. In recent weeks the white-haired and statuesque Miss Boothroyd has had to summon all her considerable authority and vocal pungency to restore calm. Occasionally she has threatened to expel from the chamber members who infringe Commons rules.

Mr. Major told Parliament members that he would like to reform PMQs by requiring that members give notice of questions the day before he answers them. ``There is a widespread feeling that 15 minutes could be more productively used,'' he said.

Some Labour opposition members of Parliament (MPs) claim that Major, whose popularity is low, is trying to avoid answering awkward questions.

But Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrat party, has given his backing to Major, arguing that PMQs generate ``more heat than light.''

Interrogation of Britain's head of government in its present form has been happening for the past 30 years. Winston Churchill, the wartime leader, seldom submitted himself to direct questioning. When opposition MPs dared to grill him, he often took refuge in his alleged deafness.

But Harold Wilson, when he became prime minister in 1964, volunteered to submit himself to questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, arguing that it was the best way for the head of government to demonstrate that he was fully in charge.

In the US, White House press conferences enable the president to state policy and be questioned by reporters. Mr. Wilson reasoned that PMQs would fulfill the same function under the British system.

It was often noted at the time, however, that he was keen on PMQs because he had an extraordinary memory and was exceptionally sure-footed in answering even the most detailed questions.

PMQs began to stir up controversy in the late 1980s when MPs finally allowed Commons proceedings to be televised. Brian Sedgemore, an opposition Labour MP, says the arrival of the TV cameras enabled the viewing public to see how the prime minister performed under pressure.

During PMQs, the opposition leader is allowed to ask him three questions. Mr. Sedgemore claims these regular confrontations have revealed Major as ``not entirely in command of the detail of government business.'' He agrees with the late Richard Crossman, a Labour Cabinet minister in the 1960s and '70s and a noted constitutional expert, that PMQs are ``the very essence of the prime ministerial system of government,'' and should not be changed.

But for Boothroyd, the gladiatorial atmosphere in the Commons when the prime minister and opposition leader confront each other has become a serious problem. On the day Major said he would like to see a change, Britain's first woman speaker had to bellow for a full minute before the chamber settled down.

``I am tired of listening to points of order that are not points of order, and the abuse that is made of them in this House,'' Madam Speaker shouted above the uproar.

Prime ministers must spend many hours of preparation before they can be confident of their ability to answer hostile questions convincingly. Major's aides say this can be a waste of time and argue that it would be better if the prime minister were given 24-hour notice of questions.

Some Labour MPs agree but add a political twist. Graham Allen, an opposition home affairs spokesman, says: ``If the prime minister knew the questions in advance, he would have no excuse for avoiding giving proper answers. At the moment he can waffle on and totally dodge the question.''

Never on a full stomach

The physical and mental strain PMQs sometimes puts on a prime minister can be considerable. Margaret Thatcher has said that when she was in Downing Street, she stayed up late the night before, rehearsing answers to possible questions. The following morning she received a lengthy briefing on late developments.

She said that it was ``not a good idea'' to face PMQs ``on a full stomach.'' Instead, she had only a bowl of soup and a piece of fruit before she started fielding questions from her political enemies. It was worth taking the trouble, however, because the ability to give good replies was ``a yardstick of leadership.'' Lady Thatcher is generally considered to have made mincemeat of Neil Kinnock, the Labour opposition leader during most of her premiership.

John Smith, Kinnock's successor, who died in May, frequently wrong-footed Major in their clashes across the narrow table that divides the Commons chamber.

As Labour prepares to choose a new leader in July, the ability of Tony Blair, the front-runner, to think on his feet during Commons exchanges, is being carefully assessed by the 4 million Labour adherents who will choose Smith's successor.

When pressed, politicians tend to agree that PMQs in their present form, broadcast live on TV, give the voting public a poor impression of the House of Commons.

Paul Flynn, a Labour member, says question time ``does no good at all to the reputation of MPs,'' because it is seen as ``a ridiculous, self-indulgent joust.'' ``The public rightly regard it as a rather cheap variety show,'' Flynn claims.

But Major may find it hard to bring about the reforms he would like. He runs the risk of being accused of wanting to protect himself against opposition attempts to show him up as an inept leader.

For reporters covering the House of Commons a toning down of PMQs would not be universally welcome.

A newspaper journalist who has covered parliamentary business for 30 years says the British parliamentary system is based on adversarial politics.

``There could be no more exciting or revealing expression of that system than requiring a prime minister to answer questions on the broad range of government business,'' he says. ``Politics, after all, is about a clash of ideas.''

TV companies too would be reluctant to give up the visual spectacle of the prime minister and his or her leading opponent in regular face-to-face confrontation.

But Eleanor Goodman, political editor of Channel Four News, says there seems to be an emerging consensus that what she calls the present ``biweekly bearpit'' is ``no good for any of the parties.''

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