Why doesn't Labour row about something important? The Punch and Judy show could follow a different script

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The Independent Online
Those people I talked to last week who were unconnected with politics professionally - neither politicians themselves nor political journalists - were more interested in what they took to be Mr Tony Blair's proposed abolition of Question Time than in the froideur between Mr Peter Mandelson and Mr Gordon Brown. The reason is, I think, fairly evident.

Mr Brown is that saturnine and slightly surly Scotsman who is forever mumbling about education and training. If people realise that he plans also to abolish family allowances for the 16- to 18-year-olds in full- time education, their opinion of him sinks even lower. Of Mr Mandelson, by contrast, they hold no opinion of any kind. He is as remote from their interests and preoccupations as, say, Sir Thomas Bingham, Lord Dacre or Mr Simon Raven, all persons who are or have been written about extensively in the broadsheet papers and the weekly journals.

Mr Mandelson is of this select group. Honorary president of the Royal College of Spindoctors he may be. But most people do not know what a spindoctor is. Indeed, that is the question I am now most commonly asked: what, please, is a spindoctor? The next most common is: what exactly is a soundbite?

Mind you, I make no claim to have my finger on the great throbbing pulse of popular opinion. I am thinking rather of people who read at least one paper and watch Channel 4 News and Newsnight. They are largely unconcerned with a quarrel between Mr Mandelson and Mr Brown whose origins are lost in that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday, when Mr Blair, not Mr Brown, succeeded John Smith. They might be more interested if the row were presented as between Mr Brown and Mr Chris Smith, or between Mr Brown and Mr John Prescott over the future powers of the Treasury. But they are more interested still in the abolition of Question Time. The reason again is fairly evident.

They have heard Prime Minister's Questions on the wireless or seen it on television. Lord Tonypandy (formerly Mr Speaker Thomas) and Madam Speaker Boothroyd have as a consequence of broadcasting become national, even international, figures. Madam Speaker, Mr John Major and Mr Blair are as familiar as the ornaments on the mantelpiece.

The wisdom of the age is that the televising of PMQs has been one of the causes of the decline in the reputation of politicians. I am not saying that this decline has not taken place: merely that for as long as I can remember - I started attending the House when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and Hugh Gaitskell Leader of the Opposition - people have been expressing the low regard in which they hold politicians. They were probably doing the same during the Wars of the Roses: "Lancaster, York, what's the difference? They're all the same, all in it for what they can get."

Irrespective of whether there really has been a sharp decline in the popular view of politicians and, if there has, whether the broadcasting of PMQs has played a part in it, the public response to what was thought of as Mr Blair's proposal was one of alarm. People thought they were to be deprived not only of a regular twice-weekly source of entertainment, a Punch-and-Judy show transposed from beach to sitting-room, but also of a safeguard to their liberties. Why, he was almost as sinister as Harold Laski who, in 1945, was alleged to be plotting the subordination of the Labour government to the National Executive Committee.

On this occasion, however, the Tory press was not really to blame for the misunderstanding. It derived from the advance publicity for a speech which Mrs Ann Taylor, the Shadow Leader of the House, made on Tuesday on parliamentary reform. Afterwards the speech, in accordance with modern practice, was scarcely reported but much commented upon none the less. Following my recent espousal of public service journalism I report what Mrs Taylor actually said:

"Tony Blair has made a number of suggestions for change to the [Commons] Procedure Committee. He proposed having one half-hour session every week for PMQs. The Prime Minister would receive overnight notice of the questions, which would be closed [that is, specific] rather than open-ended and catch- all about his engagements. The questioner would then be permitted to ask a supplementary on the same subject. MPs standing up to ask questions under such a system would have a genuine opportunity to hold the executive to account rather than to seek 36 seconds of publicity."

Mrs Taylor went on to say that Mr Blair's ideas had not been accepted by the committee but that there was room for further discussion, though "it is almost certainly too late for a reform of Question Time in this parliament". And yet the remedy lies partly in Mr Blair's hands, even when he is in opposition. A few weeks ago I asked whether anyone still remembered the Spirit of John Smith. After three days the bottle was exhausted, the pipe of peace extinguished, and the two front benches set merrily about each other exactly as they had before the death of the Labour leader.

Last Thursday Mr Blair tried to offer Mr Major another dram of the spirit but was spurned. By the second supplementary he was back to his normal ways: acting, no doubt, on the sound Christian principle that you have only two cheeks. If you turn one, and the other is smitten likewise, you are fully justified in laying into your assailant.

But there is another virtue, patience. It takes two to have a quarrel. Or, as front-row forwards in rugby can collapse a scrum by lowering a shoulder and refusing to engage with their opponents, so Mr Blair can collapse the Question Time scrum by refusing to engage with Mr Major. He or, for that matter, any other MP can, if he wishes - and without any reference to the Procedure Committee - revive the practice of asking the Prime Minister a specific question rather than one about his engagements for the day. The latter allows a supplementary on any subject within the Prime Minister's responsibilities. Madam Speaker (to whom Mrs Taylor paid deserved tribute) has been vigilant lately in ensuring that this rule is observed by Conservatives who are sucking up to the Whips by attacking Labour policies under the guise of asking the Prime Minister questions. It does something, though not much, to make the occasion less of a political scrum.

But not only can Mr Blair put down specific questions. He does not have to take his second supplementary, or even ask a question at all. Mr Neil Kinnock used sometimes to make some specious excuse for not being present and leave Lady Thatcher to Mr Roy Hattersley. If Mr Blair, unlike Mr Kinnock, duly turned up but nevertheless left the questioning to other frontbenchers, the show would collapse. Then everyone would complain - notably those who lament the lack of dignity of the present proceedings.

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