'Hideous shouting match' continues despite Blair pledge

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Parliamentary Correspondent

When Tony Blair took over the leadership of the Labour Party he promised a new kind of politics and the first place this was expected to be manifest was at Prime Minister's Question Time. It barely happened. The twice-weekly sessions remain, in the words of Sir Edward Heath, "a hideous shouting match".

Mr Blair did try. He opened his tenure last October with a gentle probe on Europe - just the one question, not the 'jumping up three times' ritual. He also dabbled with not asking a question at all, but that met with jeers from Tory backbenchers.

Within a fortnight, normal hostilities had been resumed as the Labour leader exploited a spate of departures by tarnished ministers. John Major observed: "I had not expected the Right Honourable Gentleman to step down into the gutters of public life so soon." But both have been mired there ever since.

The present arrangement of the Prime Minister answering questions for 15 minutes at 3.15 on Tuesday and Thursday dates back to 1961, based on a report by an earlier Select Committee on Procedure. Harold Macmillan seized the opportunity to display his elegant wit and later Harold Wilson, in his "memory man" prime, used the sessions to dominate the House.

Though the bear-pit atmosphere may be more intense, the two men were really the founders of the point-scoring game that has continued for more three decades. As Dr G.W. Jones put it in an article in the journal Parliamentary Affairs in 1973: "Parliament opened the door, Mr Macmillan pushed it a little and Mr Wilson flung it wide open."

The process of PMQs had evolved slowly from the 1880s, the practice of answering only on Tuesday and Thursdays was introduced in 1953 to relieve the ailing Sir Winston Churchill, and until the Macmillan era questions were limited to the Prime Minister's clear responsibilities.

So gladiatorial have the exchanges become, that for the past three years the two party leaders have been cheered by their supporters on entering the chamber. In Baroness Thatcher's time this accolade was reserved for the PM's return after an election victory or handbagging Britain's partners at a European summit.

Among the early advocates for a change from the present "Yah-boo" pattern was Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats. PMQs had to be made "more informative and in keeping with what most people want", he argued.

Mr Major joined the bandwagon last June, telling the Commons: "I believe there is a widespread feeling that these 15 minutes could be more productively used." But, careful not to give the impression he could not take the rough stuff his predecessor revelled in, the Prime Minister added that he was prepared to answer "whatever questions in whatever fashion" they were put to him.

In an early steer at the likely course of reform, Mr Major said he believed many people thought the House should be discussing "more relevant matters" than was sometimes the case at PMQs.

The idea of a "substantive" question - giving the Prime Minister advance notice of the subject rather than the current "open" or "anything under the sun" arrangement - was given powerful support by Sir Edward Heath and Lord Callaghan.

Giving evidence to the select committee in March, both former prime ministers took a disdainful view of the contemporary scene. Sir Edward said PMQs ought to be a serious examination of major problems with which the Prime Minister, was concerned, "and it's nothing like that".