Leading Article: Questions of good manners in the House

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The Independent Online
THE BEAR PIT that is the House of Commons is to be transformed into a forum for more congenial exchanges. That, at least, is apparently what the party leaders would like. During the conference season, Messrs Ashdown, Blair and Major each indicated that the time had come for change. Let's have less mindless sniping and more serious political debate, they said. This afternoon, during the first Prime Minister's Question Time of the autumn, they have a chance to demonstrate the sincerity of their intentions and show that parliamentary yob culture is out and grown-up politics is in. We shall believe it when we see it.

The politicians have good reason to clean up their act. The yah-boo atmosphere on the floor of the House is, frankly, bad for the trade. The public is unimpressed by this Punch and Judy show, particularly since television exposed it to full view. Schoolboy antics in the Commons may partly explain why politicians are held in such low regard. Nobody craves the narcoleptic impact of the German Bundestag or the soporific calm of the European Parliament, where even a joke has to be translated into several languages. But the current formula for Prime Minister's questions has, despite all the hot air generated, become stale, predictable and boring.

In one sense the political yearning for a more sober parliamentary atmosphere reflects the fact that all three main parties are competing for the centre ground of British politics. Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown also wish to be seen as worthy of high office, rather than as mere oppositional point-scorers. John Major's objective is to look steadier and more reliable than his party.

Yet change will be difficult. The media cannot resist the twice- weekly 15-minute slanging match. Mr Major tried to cool the ritual when he moved into No 10, but Neil Kinnock's ad hominem attacks made him look wimpish, so he responded in kind. In due course Mr Major delighted his backbenchers by labelling John Smith the 'Monsieur Oui' of Brussels.

Resistance to change will be particularly strong on the backbenches, where jeering, groaning and general rudeness are ingrained traditions. As one old hand said: 'If you want information, you put down a written question. All other questions are intended to embarrass the Government.'