Luff Challenges Tony Blair Over Role Of Parliament

House of Commons Liaison Committee

Chairman: Now it is time for you to draw breath, Prime Minister, while we move into the second theme which is the consequences of constitutional change and Peter Luff.

Q140 Peter Luff: Prime Minister, I am searching for the adjective, let us call it remarkable, that speech you made about the media last week. In that speech you lamented the declining importance attached to Parliament, you said you had changed nothing and I quote: "What has changed is the way Parliament is reported, or rather not reported." Are you seriously asking us to believe that it is all the fault of the media?

Mr Blair: No. It is certainly not all the fault of anyone, I am simply saying that there is a relationship between the way Parliament is reported - and it is no one's fault, that is not the point - the point is you do not get the same focus on parliamentary debates as you got when I first came into Parliament and certainly 20 years before that. The Chairman of your Committee is in a better place to talk about this than any us, but it is just a fact. It is not anyone's fault, it is the way the world works today.

Q141 Peter Luff: It is someone's fault, Prime Minister. In writing in this week's Spectator Charles Moore stressed the importance of the principle of "Le patron mange ici" for any organisation ("the proprietor eats here" for those who have not got the Prime Minister's skills in French!). Let me put it to you, you have not manged ici a great deal over your ten years, you have the worst voting record of any Prime Minister since the War; you have spoken in only four debates, apart from Queen's Speech debates, three of them on Iraq; you have evoked the Parliament Act on three of the four occasions it has been used, and two of them when you had a majority and the largest party in the Lords; halved the opportunity for topical questioning at Prime Minister's Question Time; flooded the Commons with 22 per cent legislation than in the previous ten-year period, while modernisation has meant that Members of Parliament did not have the time to consider it; routinely timetabled bills, the Commons Library could not even estimate for me the number of clauses that have not been considered in the Commons; arbitrarily abolished the historic office of Lord Chancellor; encouraged your ministers to make statements to the Today Programme rather than the House of Commons; and as your first and most symbolic act moved the Whips' Office out of Number 12 Downing Street and moved Alastair Campbell in instead. Were you not sending a pretty powerful message to the media?

Mr Blair: You mean where the Whips' Office is the sort of --- Peter, honestly, by all means, it is a great list, but let me just respond to you directly and head on, the thing that matters about the patron manging ici is the number of times the patron turns up and answers questions. If you go back over my period I have actually spent longer answering questions in the House of Commons than either of my two predecessors in the same period of time. I have made more statements in the House of Commons and, yes, it is true as a result of the large majority I have not turned up to vote in the same way but it is not turning up to vote and going through the lobby that is holding me to account, it is questioning me, and that is what we are doing here, and I am the only Prime Minister ever to have agreed to come along to this Committee. So by all means read it out --- As for the legislation we have prelegislative scrutiny far more than we ever did before and I think that will develop even further. The modernisation of the Houses of Parliament, with the greatest respect, is not a matter for me, it has been a matter for you guys. Whether you want to have it the old way or the new way is up to you, and I have my own views on that as well, but the fact is it is a myth that we have somehow said we are not bothering with Parliament any more. It is just not correct. The reason why I think it is important to nail this down right now is that actually we do need to look at more innovative ways of having a proper public debate and that is the reason I agreed to come along to this forum because in the end I think we probably get as much, if not more, out of this type of more informal dialogue when you can go into issues in detail over a period of time than you could really with Prime Minister's Question Time which, let us be absolutely clear, of course it is a major part of holding the Prime Minister to account, but it is also a debating joust.

Q142 Peter Luff: Prime Minister, I anticipated you might say that about this Committee ---

Mr Blair: So you have got another list?

Q143 Peter Luff: We are among friends here today and no-one is really listening so can you give us some tips because, frankly, I do not think we have got a great deal out of these sessions over the years and I wonder why that is. Is that because you are too good for us or are we doing it wrong? Can you give us some tips for your successor so that we can actually make them more effectively when Gordon takes over?

Mr Blair: It depends what you want out of this and it also depends what you want out of holding the Prime Minister to account, because there is politics as theatre and there is politics as discussion. Politics as theatre is what happens at Prime Minister's Question Time. As I say, I think it is absolutely a major part of our constitution and should be maintained and all the rest of it, however it is politics as theatre. Politics as discussion is what you do get out of this. I have just had an interchange where I have said frankly what I think are the problems with the public service reforms that we did, all the rationale behind it, and the point that I am making to you is when you say what have you got out of it, you ask in your own mind what you measure that as, because I think this is the point that I was really trying to make is that if you are saying unless you get a whole lot of headlines tomorrow saying "Prime Minister floored, rocking on his heels, did not know what was going on" et cetera you would feel you have not got anything out of it, then maybe what you have got is a proper discussion of policy which is in fact what politics should be about. I say to you - and I say this because I am off out of it next week as you know (in relation to this job!) - most of us in politics come into politics because we are interested in ideas, and too little, in my view, of the present debate about politics or is about ideas is about things that are really happening to people in the real world and too much of it revolves around scandal, controversy, people bashing each other.

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