Leading Article: Let us end this game of Commons softball

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The Independent Online
THE ABILITY of Parliament to hold the Government to account has diminished, is diminishing and ought to be increased. "This loss of accountability has been worsened by the growing trend for MPs to ask planted questions, soft full-tosses of which the minister is already aware." We heartily agree. But these are not the words of Andrew Mackinlay, the heroic Labour backbencher who writes for us today. They are those of Alastair Campbell, now the Prime Minister's press secretary, writing about the "crisis of confidence in Parliament" in the now defunct Today newspaper, 10 March 1994.

Mr Mackinlay performed a valuable service in reminding Tony Blair of what was obvious to him and to his entourage before they found themselves in a position to be held to account. On Wednesday Mr Mackinlay used almost the same phrasing as Mr Campbell's four years ago: "Does the Prime Minister recall that, when we were in opposition, we used to groan at the fawning, obsequious, soft-ball, well-rehearsed and planted questions asked by Conservative members?" We all used to groan, and the truth upon which Mr Mackinlay hit is that we are groaning at the other lot now. There was one of those rare moments of surprise and recognition in the Commons at his question, and a rushing roar of approval which was notably unconfined to the opposition benches.

Mr Blair should listen to that sound, reread some of his press secretary's old columns and remember what he thought when he was looking in on the secret garden of power in frustration. Then he should implement the Mackinlay manifesto, by accepting the democratic good faith of backbench MPs "who wish to provide scrutiny and accountability in this place" and by acting on the ideas for modernising Parliament floated yesterday.

In the end, this government will secure its position in public affection not by rigid discipline ensuring its MPs stay on message and Parliament becomes an arm of its propaganda machine, but by dealing openly with justified criticism. As Mr Campbell said in 1994: "You wonder, if the Government itself shows such repeated contempt for Parliament, why its members are surprised when the public expresses contempt for them."

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