No insults mar British Parliament's new question time 'New' Labor premier instills dullness where catcalls once flourished


LONDON -- Tony Blair's "new" Labor Party has even changed the prime minister's question time -- the exercise that brings the mother of parliaments closer to "Animal House."

Gone are the schoolboy insults, the catcalls. Blair took his first question time as British prime minister yesterday under an experimental format that was kinder, gentler and, some said, duller.

Under the Labor government, the 15-minute spectacle that took place Tuesdays and Thursdays, was replaced by a 30-minute session Wednesdays.

In its debut yesterday, Blair fielded 24 questions on issues ranging from pensions to land mines to the bus service in the northern English city of Lancaster.

The session was so sedate, House Speaker Betty Boothroyd rarely had to raise her voice and bark "order" to the normally contentious politicians.

The atmosphere was another sign of Blair's command of the political scene, and the natural honeymoon in the wake of Labor's smashing May 1 election victory.

"I hope that people will understand that it is a better way of organizing prime ministers' questions," Blair said to a packed House of Commons.

Labor officials claim the longer, single session will lead to a more serious and informative debate, two qualities often lacking in the past.

The Conservatives say Blair is simply trying to duck their best political shots.

"This is not a change for the better or for the benefit of Parliament," said Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman. "It has everything to do with trying to shield the prime ++ minister from public accountability."

Another Tory politician, Shaun Woodward, labeled the event "predictably dull."

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democratic Party leader, praised the experiment and said: "No doubt it was too bold for some, but if the result of that is that we can reach a format for these questions which is a little less confrontational and a little more rational, that will have been worth it."

Ever since Harold Macmillan introduced the twice-a-week format 1961, the prime minister's question time has been the best show in Parliament. Before then, prime ministers were asked questions in a less formal way.

It has been described as bare-knuckle fighting without a ring, and compared with setting mice on a treadmill.

Margaret Thatcher admitted to having butterflies before quashing her tormentors. And John Major made sure he was well prepared, arriving armed with a thick binder crammed with answers to dozens of potential questions.

Former President George Bush witnessed one session and said: "I count my blessings for the fact that I don't have to get into that pit ."

In his early days as prime minister, Blair has encountered fewer taunts. He even appeared without notes.

An ex-Tory minister, Ian Taylor, mockingly told Blair: "I warmly welcome you to your role of answering questions and I'm very grateful to you for finding time in your diary to do so.

"At some point you might consult the House about how these sessions change," Taylor said, complaining that the question time change was announced in a press release instead of to the Parliament.

"I also wish you well in dealing with the massed ranks of your own backbenchers as they lose their political virginity."

Blair responded: "Yes, we have a busy day because this government, unlike the last government, is actually governing in the interests of the people."

Pub Date: 5/22/97

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