Thursday's Book: Parliament Under Pressure by Peter Riddell (Gollancz, pounds 20)

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The redundancy of Parliament is a popular theme. For many years, parliamentarians have bemoaned the draining away of their power and prestige as Churchill's "shrine of the world's liberties" became overgrown and neglected. The Blair government seemed to be the culmination of the trend. All power was concentrated in the executive and all important announcements were managed through the media. With a majority of 179, the legislative process could be taken for granted. If the Prime Minister bothered to cross the road to look in on the sleeping assembly, it was awfully decent of him.

But suddenly, the statues sprang to life. Last month, Tony Blair's previously quiescent MPs experienced an emotional convulsion. Although they could not stop the cut in lone-parent benefits, their rebellion mattered. It was a traumatic and damaging moment for the Government.

But it was just a moment. Peter Riddell has reported parliament for 20 years, and has the skill to stand back and observe the trends over time. He offers a useful corrective to the most simplistic "parliament in decline" thesis, pointing out that when the Commons was an assembly of part-timers, it was even more feeble in holding the government to account. More recently, he notes that Francis Pym had much less trouble with opponents of entry into Europe in 1971-72 than Richard Ryder did with the opponents of Maastricht in 1992-93.

Parliament is now full of the new breed of professional politician which Riddell described so well in his previous book, Honest Opportunism. These MPs work much harder at the job of politics, but here Riddell describes how this effort is applied in a smaller space, with the "emergence of other centres of power": the European Union, judges, arm's-length agencies and the media. This is drier material than the earlier book, but enlivened by arresting quotations, sparkling asides and the sheer quality of Riddell's analysis.

The chapter on the media is the most interesting (at least to a fellow journalist). Since he started on the Financial Times in the 1970s, the reporting of parliament has changed completely. The TV cameras have been allowed in, but transmit only soundbites. No newspapers now carry verbatim reports (although Hansard is on the Internet at www.parliament.the-stationery- office.co.uk).

Riddell takes the view that if parliament did its job properly, journalists would be more likely to report it. This plain approach has the merit of avoiding waffle about New Labour's use of the power of popular culture. But it means that his prescriptions are limited. Despite claiming that the book is not a "reformer's tract" - and it is not - it ends with "Ten Proposals for Reform" which seem slightly off the point. Cutting the number of MPs and ministers, and paying salaries to committee chairmen, may be sensible but they are hardly likely to make parliament relevant to people's lives - or to restrain the imperial tendencies of Elective Dictator Blair.

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