Ask a stupid question

Stephen Castle on the pantomime that has MPs rolling in the aisles on Tuesdays and Thursdays
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JOHN Major has a new trick at Prime Minister's questions which has excited Conservative backbenchers. It is to make a statement which sounds supportive of government policy and then - to roars of approval from them - reveal that the words are not his but those of a shadow minister or even of Tony Blair himself. On Thursday the Labour leader responded in kind, with a phrase that turned out to be not from him, but from John Redwood, former Conservative Cabinet minister. In the Commons this pantomime nonsense passes for clever stuff.

So MPs will appreciate this observation on the workings of the Commons: there is "quite a broad consensus across the majority of both parties on a large number of issues and how they're handled. Yet for partisan reasons, everything has to become an issue. Either the Government has got it spectacularly right or they have got it spectacularly wrong. There's never anything in between". Not my words but those of Mr Major to his biographer Penny Junor three years ago.

Early in his premiership Mr Major made some unconvincing attempts to change the style of the occasion. Likewise when Mr Blair was elected he let it be known that he wanted question time to change. He would, it was reported, tackle more serious issues, sometimes giving notice of the topic in advance, not always deploying the maximum permitted three questions. He even suggested remodelling the present twice-weekly, 15-minute question time as a single, 30-minute in-depth session. This new philosophical approach, like Mr Major's, seemed to prevail for a couple of Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Paddy Ashdown, who as leader of the Liberal Democrats has only a couple of dozen of MPs to cheer him on, makes no secret of his disdain for the chamber. After all, he has no dispatch box to speak from and faces jeers from both sides.

Why, when all leading figures in the parties deplore it, does this boorish afternoon ritual survive? Question time remains the focus of the Parliamentary week, of huge symbolic importance to both main parties. It takes place on days when even MPs from far-flung constituencies attend Westminster, at an hour which allows for a generous lunch and a taxi ride from a range of restaurants back to the House.

Some MPs spend the previous couple of hours working diligently through constituency correspondence over a glass of sparkling water. But many do not. For the mood on the Tory benches, imagine a corporate hospitality suite at the Varsity Match. For Labour, the directors' box at the local soccer club after a union-sponsored lunchtime bash. MPs want to cheer their team on, but they are also keeping a critical eye on their side's performance under pressure.

The best way to impress this (mainly male) audience is a combination of cosmetic outrage and personal insult. On Thursday Mr Major got a cheer when he told the Leader of the Opposition that his questions "are literally senseless". That was nothing to the roar of approval on Tuesday when he told Mr Ashdown that he was "living in some Disneyworld of his own".

On the rack over the Harriet Harman episode, Mr Blair hit back at Mr Major thus: "I thank the Prime Minister for his kind words of concern over pressure. The difference between us is that I will not buckle under it".

MPs greatly enjoy this sport, and relish the occasional jokes. For example Sir Patrick Cormack, one of the more amiable knights of the Tory shires, brought the House down when he condemned the Liberal Democrats' line on the legalisation of drugs as that of "the party that would change the meaning of the Sunday joint". Effective maybe, but Dorothy Parker it ain't.

And flashes of humour are suffocated by stage-managed tedium. The whips line up sycophantic MPs to ask the most sympathetic question possible on the theme of the week. Last Thursday, up popped Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Colchester North, urging Mr Major "to make use of the military corrective training centre at Colchester garrison and ignore the blandishments and objections of Liberal Democrat and Labour Colchester councillors who once again demonstrate that the opposition parties are the villain's friend". Surprise, surprise, that parroted a phrase used by Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister, in his attack on Labour last Sunday.

Occasionally, planted questions go further, opening the way to a formal pronouncement of policy by the Prime Minister. But they are invariably deployed for point-scoring. The number of occasions when MPs raise proper issues seeking a serious answer are lamentably few.

Labour calculates that, since Christmas, 30 of the 35 questions asked by Tories at Prime Minister's question time have been a pretext for attacking the opposition, rather than exploring government policy. More seriously, they accuse Mr Major of regularly using misleading statistics and plan to raise the "abuse" of question time this week.

It was not always like this. In the 1950s there was no fixed timing for questions to the Prime Minister, which, depending on the rest of parliamentary business, might not take place at all. The first really aggressive exchanges were between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. Then, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher dispensed with the habit of referring detailed questions to other ministers. Instead she arrived in the Chamber with a folder, known as the "plastic fantastic", containing topical briefings followed by pages of "killer facts". Neil Kinnock was regularly handbagged by streams of statistics.

By the 1990s question time had come to dominate the attention of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for two days a week. Mr Major begins his preparation at 9am, working through a note prepared overnight by one of his private secretaries and the media summary from the press office. During the morning the lines of attack and defence are worked on by civil servants both in Downing Street and in the appropriate departments. This often means much inter-departmental discussion, with Downing Street pestering ministerial offices hourly. Mr Major then discusses the results over lunch with two or three aides. One might think this time would be better devoted to running the country. Over at the Commons. Mr Blair is doing the same, rehearsing his lines with his team of advisers. One might also think that the MPs who pack into the House for these sessions could show as much interest in the many sparsely attended important debates on other days.

But the twice-weekly knock-about are where reputations are made and lost. Roy Hattersley, deputising for Mr Kinnock, once ambushed the then Geoffrey Howe (standing in for Mrs Thatcher) by asking him about the contents of the next Budget. When Lord Howe replied haughtily that to do so would breach the most basic parliamentary convention, Mr Hattersley moved in for the kill. In that case, he retorted, how could the Tories keep demanding to know Labour's spending plans after the next election? It was clever, but its effect on the 1992 election would not have registered on any swingometer.

It was intended for a different audience. Question time can change the perceptions of MPs and commentators. Two weeks ago Mr Major's position as party leader was said to be in danger, with "grandees" threatening to unseat him if the May local election are a disaster. Then came the row over Ms Harman and Mr Major's testosterone-charged performance against Mr Blair, complete with accompanying sound-bite to parody the Labour leader: "I just want to be tough on hypocrisy and tough on the causes of hypocrisy". In fact this was not even Mr Major's joke; a group of backbenchers thought it up in the tea-room and fed it into the Downing Street machine via the whips after rehearsing it to journalists at lunchtime.

But this put-down, and his other recent question-time performances, may have secured Mr Major's position as party leader until the election. Last week, with Tory MPs in a state of euphoria, the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs suspended its rules to prevent any possible leadership challenge to Mr Major in November. Mr Major had shown who was boss.

There is little evidence that these antics impress the public. The voters see only sound-bites on the television news, carefully balanced for impartiality.

What does translate to the television screen is the apparent triviality of the Parliamentary system. When MPs demand more pay they should reflect that their constituents see an uncouth mob delighting in each other's misfortunes and braying like donkeys at their own side's bad jokes. At 3.15pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays the House of Commons is talking to itself in a language the rest of the country does not comprehend. The best verdict on it all is delivered by Madam Speaker at 3.30pm sharp: time's up.