Blair shuts down the Commons bearpit

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Tony Blair yesterday announced that he was ending the twice-weekly "Punch and Judy Show" at Prime Minister's Question Time as part of his efforts to breathe fresh air into the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister announced that he was replacing the twice-weekly 15- minute sessions, which had been criticised for encouraging "yah-boo, sound- bite politics". From 21 May, he will face questions once a week for half an hour.

Forcing the Prime Minister to answer questions about his whereabouts every Tuesday and Thursday has no place in the presidential style of the Blair administration. It is seen as a quaint exercise by other Western leaders, including President Bill Clinton, who announced that he will be visiting Downing Street next week to meet the Prime Minister for the first time since the election.

But the decision to do away with the tradition was attacked by John Major, who spent six years answering questions from Mr Blair and his predecessor, Neil Kinnock, and may have relished his chance to get his own back. "It is true that PMQs is a burden to any Prime Minister. But that is the point of it. It makes the Prime Minister directly accountable to Parliament. The size of the government's majority in the House at present makes that accountability more important and not less," he said.

Mr Blair was braced for an outcry after informing Mr Major and other party leaders, including Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, who used a Punch and Judy show to launch his party's election campaign.

Baroness Thatcher and Mr Major had to prepare meticulously for unexpected questions, taking up precious hours of briefing. The "open question" enabling backbenchers to try to catch out the Prime Minister will stay, for the time being, but there are moves to end that too. A new special select committee will be set up to review further changes to Prime Minister's Questions, and Downing Street sources confirmed that the Government will be suggesting that the "open question" should go.

That could restrict MPs to raising issues related to the questions on the Commons order paper, and may be resisted more fiercely than ending the twice-weekly sessions which have made Prime Minister's Question Time an unlikely hit on cable television in the United States.

A more sedate session of questions may lose viewers, but Mr Blair is said to have found widespread distaste for the twice-weekly clashes on the doorsteps campaigning in the election. "The media coverage of it has changed the nature of the event itself. He felt that the public were fed up with the relentless, endless slanging match, Blair slagging off Major and Major slagging off Blair," said a Downing Street source.

"It is not very edifying and hopefully, this will change the nature of the debate."

Mr Ashdown, who was regularly jeered by Tory and Labour backbenchers every time he entered the fray in Prime Minister's Questions in the last Parliament, supported Mr Blair's move to make the sessions more serious, and more sustained in their questioning.

But the contestants for the Tory party leadership are loathe to give up their chance to show they can beat Mr Blair across the despatch box.

Michael Howard, the former home secretary, said: "I have no problem with looking again at the format of PMQs, but it is wrong to cut it down to once a week. Requiring the PM to answer to the House of Commons twice a week is good for democracy."

The Prime Minister this week showed his anxiety to enforce a culture change in government by telling the Cabinet to "call me Tony". He will also sweep away the practice in Prime Minister's questions of repeating the set reply to questions about his duties for the day.

This resulted in Mr Major having to repeat five or six times each session the words, "I refer the Hon Member to the reply I gave earlier ..." Mr Blair believes this procedure is time-wasting and baffling to the public.

Leading article, page 15

How to be a toff, page 18

Comment, page 19

Questions and answers

Prime Ministers Questions has occupied a central place in Commons business for more than 35 years. The 15-minute exchange, which begins just after Big Ben strikes 3.15 on a Tuesday and Thursday, is renowned around the world for its rowdy confrontational abrasiveness.

It began in its current form in 1961, when it was introduced Harold Macmillan.

In no other democracy except Canada does the head of Government have to appear so regularly in Parliament to answer questions and reply to criticism. On seeing Prime Minister's Questions former US president George Bush commented: "I count my blessings for the fact that I don't have to go into that pit that John Major stands in, nose to nose with the Opposition all yelling at each other."

The twice-weekly scrap has a cult television following in the Netherlands.