Blair must rediscover Commons touch

MPs may not be given a chance to vote on a war with Iraq before the missiles start flying. CHRIS MONCRIEFF – the Press Association's venerable and highly respected political commentator – says the Prime Minister's arrogance over the role of Parliament in our democracy has to be curbed.

MPs may not be given a chance to vote on a war with Iraq before the missiles start flying. CHRIS MONCRIEFF – the Press Association's venerable and highly respected political commentator – says the Prime Minister's arrogance over the role of Parliament in our democracy has to be curbed.

THE House of Commons is heading towards impotence and general infirmity. And it now behoves MPs to act – and quickly at that – to halt and reverse this downward slide which is slowly transforming it into a place which is often treated with disdain, if not downright contempt, by ministers.

The Iraqi affair has served to highlight the crisis that now faces Westminster. It has demonstrated that Parliament has even bigger problems than the overarching and overwhelming powers exercised over it by the European Union – although those are bad enough.

What the threat of war has shown is that the Government will use every trick in the book to avoid Parliament.


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You could be forgiven for suspecting that ministers regard the House of Commons as an irritant and a waste of time they could more profitably spend doing much grander things.

Just consider what happened before the recent full-dress debate on Iraq. A Conservative MP asked the Leader of the House, Robin Cook, whether the Prime Minister would be sitting in the House throughout the debate.

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Mr Cook gave the impression of treating this request as a huge joke which barely merited an answer. But he did actually have the courtesy to give a kind of reply which implied that the Prime Minister had better things to do than sit around in the Commons all day.

In the event, Mr Blair stayed in the Commons for the two opening speeches, by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, and then disappeared.

Yet the Prime Minister has time to hold a Press conference once a month, lasting well over an hour, offering reporters more access to himself than he offers to elected MPs.

And only the other day, he spent more than three hours, including journey times, having a fruitless (and frequently laughable) televised "dialogue" in a warehouse in Wembley with uninspiring representatives of our "yoof" culture.

But, it seems, it is too much to ask him to spend a few hours in the House of Commons listening to what MPs have to say.

And when, in 1997, Mr Blair altered his question time routine from two 15-minute sessions a week to one of 30 minutes, one of his aides proudly told me: "You have no idea how much this new arrangement frees up the week."

I should have pointed out that it is not supposed to be a question of "freeing up the week."

And once I overheard a private conversation in which a former Prime Minister – whom I cannot name – described his enforced twice-weekly visits to the House of Commons as "an absolute nuisance."

On top of all this, the Government is more and more making major announcements, not in Parliament, but in televised press conferences outside, where the water is not muddied, so to speak, by the presence of political opponents.

So that much of what ministers proclaim in Parliament is old news.

Both the present Speaker, Michael Martin, and his predecessor, Baroness Boothroyd, have complained about this growing practice. But, it would seem, to little avail.

So, if MPs do not start soon to assert their rights to hold the Government of the day to account, they will see the place degenerate into an innocuous sixth-form debating society.

The remedy for bringing an arrogant government to heel is in their hands – and theirs alone.

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