Parliament is the centre of political debate once again

This will do more to restore voter turnout than any amount of tinkering with methods of voting

Whatever Michael Howard may or may not achieve for the Tory party's electoral fortunes, he already deserves last week's Spectator award for Parliamentarian of the Year on the basis of his first two appearances at the dispatch box as Leader of the Opposition. For the first time since Tony Blair became Prime Minister, Mr Howard has ensured that Parliament will once again become the centre of political debate.

This alone should do more to restore the reputation of Parliament and increase voter turnout than any amount of tinkering with methods of voting, parliamentary procedures, select committees and Prime Ministerial press conferences. If people feel that Parliament actually matters, they will take a greater interest in its affairs and who should be its representatives.

Watching Prime Minister's Questions since Mr Howard took over management of the Tory shop has been a whole new experience for political journalists. Mr Howard has restored the excitement, if not necessarily the dignity, of Parliament, and maybe he could even unwittingly help to restore the reputation of the Prime Minister, who will now be forced to treat Parliament with greater respect.

Yesterday, senior Labour, Liberal Democrat and Tory front-bench spokesmen finally got down to the serious business of negotiating out of the impasse between the Lords and Commons over the question of jury trials and foundation hospitals - initally angry at the prospect of handing a propaganda coup to Mr Howard, they finally, sensibly, came to an eleventh hour agreement. The consequence of Michael Howard's brinksmanship is that Mr Blair must now reckon with Parliament, just as every one of his predecessors - including Margaret Thatcher, with her huge majority - was eventually required to do.

An air of excited anticipation hangs over next Wednesday's Commons debate on the Queen's Speech, when both leaders will be tested in their speeches on the Government's programme for the forthcoming session. On too few occasions in recent years have we actually heard the main party leaders test their ideas and arguments in debate - as opposed to questions. And, if Mr Howard is to capitalise on mirroring Winston Churchill's smaller Shadow Cabinet, he might also consider leading from the front - as Churchill did - by taking more of the Opposition debates himself, forcing the Prime Minister to do likewise.

By restoring Parliament to the centre of debate, Mr Howard forces MPs on all sides to return both to the chamber and to the division lobbies. This week's votes on foundation hospitals brought a near 100 per cent turnout of Tory MPs - although on the crucial vote, which the Government won by only 17 votes, Michael Portillo was still unable to make it to the division lobby. Perhaps there is a case for relieving him of his irksome parliamentary duties by giving him an application form for the Chiltern Hundreds in order to get someone like Sir Malcolm Rifkind into the Commons primed for the general election. Kensington and Chelsea Tories could just about sustain the risk of a by-election.

But in general, there has been a welcome reassertion of the authority of the Opposition whips, who have previously found it difficult to persuade backbenchers to even turn up to speak - let alone vote. In the middle of President Bush's state visit, Mr Blair was forced to return to the Commons to cast his vote - while Mr Howard was setting an example to his troops by being present for a vote at 2am yesterday. By contrast, the Government whips and John Reid, the Health Secretary, had no arguments, save a pathetic appeal not to vote against the Government - in case it was defeated.

The Government is now finally reaping the whirlwind of its own large majority. In any previous Parliament of the last 50 years, a Prime Minister would have backed off - sometimes merely because of the threat of a defeat. Mr Blair is about to learn, belatedly, that he will have to listen to his backbenchers in a way he has never before contemplated. And heaven help him should he find himself leading a Government with a Commons majority in single - or even double - figures.

The new political landscape has not yet translated into opinion polls. For the time being, this continues to help Charles Kennedy. But he may yet have to refine subtly his greatest political asset - that he is the anti-politician. So far, in the one-sided Commons arena of the past few years, Mr Kennedy's tactics have worked well. But after the two recent titanic exchanges between Mr Blair and Mr Howard, there is a sense that Mr Kennedy is temporarily out of the game.

The forthcoming session is probably the last full legislative session before an expected general election in 2005. Next year's session would be severely truncated in the event of a dissolution. Most of next week's measures such as tuition fees and the removal of the remaining hereditary peers have already been widely trailed. Both of these are a far cry from the Labour manifesto of 2001, which promised that "we will not introduce top up fees" and, on the House of Lords, reform "to make it more representative and democratic". The Government is wary, however, about introducing another hunting bill after the current bill fell in the Lords. It is beginning to look as though the new session will run Mr Blair to earth.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

Comments