Inside Parliament: Honourable members tire of dishonourable PMQs

MPs seek Question Time reforms Major refuses to condemn French nuclear tests Heseltine cheered to his seat
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Indy Politics
John Major yesterday laughed off Labour shouts for Michael Heseltine to take Prime Minister's Questions and set about Labour with the renewed vigour born of his success in the leadership contest.

But though Mr Major waxed long about the "dithering" of Tony Blair and the evils of a national minimum wage, he had precious little to say about French nuclear testing or even MPs' outside earnings.

The fixation with political point-scoring is almost certainly a major factor in demands for a reform of Prime Minister's Questions, underscored by a Harris poll of MPs published yesterday in the Parliamentary Monitor. Two-thirds of the 167 MPs surveyed want different procedures for the twice- weekly 15-minute sessions.

Fed by friendly backbenchers, Mr Major said he strongly suspected that the Labour leader knew a minimum wage was economic nonsense, "but he regards it as politically expedient". There seemed to be "some uncertainty and dithering" on the Labour front bench about the proposal, he said.

Mr Blair repeatedly pressed the Prime Minister to say whether he agreed in principle with the central recommendation of the Nolan committee, that MPs should disclose their earnings from consultancies.

"Isn't it time the Prime Minister asserted his authority and said the Nolan report is his report? He commissioned it. He said he accepted it and he should make sure that Conservative MPs implement it without any further delay."

But Mr Major said the Labour leader's attempt to use the report as a political football was "pretty shabby". He would do the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life the courtesy of waiting for its report on Lord Nolan's recommendations before commenting. "The House will make its decision, as I said at the outset, on matters relating to backbench MPs."

The select committee is split, with Tory members and the lone Liberal Democrat blocking any early move for disclosure.

Denis MacShane got even shorter shrift when he sought prime ministerial condemnation of President Chirac's intention to press ahead with nuclear testing on Mururoa Atoll. "Will he join with our Commonwealth partners Australia and New Zealand in their opposition to the nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific?" asked the Labour MP for Rotherham. "No, I will not," Mr Major replied, to cheers from the Tory benches.

No further explanation of policy followed, fuelling the suspicion that if the United States lifted its moratorium, Britain would resume testing at the Nevada desert facility.

Later, Tam Dalyell, MP for Linlithgow, unsuccessfully sought an emergency debate on the French test plan. "In the South Pacific an indigenous people's opinion has been brushed aside," he said. "A hard-won status quo on the most dangerous of all weapons in a dangerous world has been brushed aside with it."

The customary cheers for the Labour and Tory leaders as they entered the chamber just before Question Time were followed by a third - mainly from Labour MPs - as Michael Heseltine, the First Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, took his seat on the front bench. Jim Dowd, Labour MP for Lewisham West, congratulated the Prime Minister for "retaining his post in the Government now run by Mr Heseltine" and asked why, after five years, Mr Major thought he needed a deputy. As the First Secretary smiled broadly, Mr Major said he would be "supporting me across a full range of Government policies ... he will have direct control of Government policy on competitiveness and deregulation".

"He has a reputation for straight talking, as does the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party [John Prescott]. Both have a reputation for robustly attacking the Labour leader - and I expect that to continue."

Whether Deputy Prime Minister's Question Time would prove any more satisfactory to MPs is a moot point. According to the Harris poll, dissatisfaction with PMQs is a cross-party phenomenon - 63 per cent of Tories polled and 67 per cent of Labour MPs wanted reform.

The most popular option - supported by 62 per cent of MPs polled - was for a substantive question tabled at short notice. At present nearly all questions are "open", simply asking about the Prime Minister engagements, enabling the MP to follow up on any subject.

A move to substantive questions would make it much more difficult for the Prime Minister to brush off a challenge on, for example, French nuclear testing. Having been given notice of a question on an issue of international significance, a more detailed reply would be expected. Though the survey pre-dated Mr Major's Question Time performances over the leadership contest, one of bravura standard, it does not suggest great Tory enthusiasm for his Despatch Box appearances. On the Labour benches, support for extending PMQs ran at 36 per cent, compared to a deflating 6 per cent on the Conservative side.

A Liberal Democrat-led debate deploring the impact of rail privatisation on investment in the network and staff morale provided Tory MPs with an easy opportunity to denounce Labour as "apologists" for strikers. Spokesman Henry McLeish was also repeatedly challenged on whether Labour would renationalise Railtrack and the private operators. It would be "ludicrous" to give such a commitment now, Mr McLeish said. Labour would have policies "to put the railways back together again".

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