Yes, the Commons does matter

MPs have left Westminster for their holidays - has anyone noticed? The tourists still flock around the parliamentary buildings. The Today programme and The World at One continue to serve us a stimulating diet of high politics. The newspapers are stuffed full of political reports and commentaries. Tony Blair has not flown off to Tuscany yet, so decisions of central importance are still being made. The Commons seems to play a peripheral role in politics when it is sitting. No surprise, then, that none of us feels bereft when MPs disappear for three months.

This increasingly common perception manifests itself in different ways. Television companies, having fought to get their cameras into parliament, now try to find all kinds of devices to avoid reporting it. (Last year, in a moment of fancy, I tried to think of an extreme way of illustrating the naive "anti-Westminster" mood in some media quarters and fantasised about a programme on politics presented by a reporter roaming the country on horseback. Subsequently I got a call from a very distinguished political journalist, alarmed to read that I had found out about her programme in advance. My fantasy was a reality.) Newspapers have also scaled down their parliamentary coverage while increasing the amount of overall space devoted to politics in general. Ministers are seen and heard in many more different - and in some cases more testing - locations. It is almost a cliche to say the Commons no longer matters.

Fortunately (after all, we, or some of us, cast our votes to put these people into the Commons) the true picture proves more complex. BBC2's Despatch Box recently compiled a review of the parliamentary year. It was striking how many pivotal moments took place in the Commons, rather than on the airwaves or in the newspapers. To take a few examples: negotiations over the Northern Ireland peace process took place in front of our eyes in the Commons, and their failure was reflected immediately in a subdued statement from Mo Mowlam; many of the gravest misgivings about the Kosovo war and the government's war aims found their most vivid expression in the Commons debates over the period; the back-bench revolts over social security reform proved bigger than the government had anticipated; the confusion arising from devolution was gloriously reflected in a farcical Welsh Question Time, when ministers repeatedly strayed on to matters that were now the concern of the new Assembly. "If it is a matter for the Assembly, it is not a matter for this House. Correct?" boomed the Speaker on several occasions. But behind the farce lay a serious issue.

The Commons was coming to terms with its new role as a distinctly UK body with less direct power over Scottish and Welsh affairs. The Commons also provided the backdrop for personal drama with longer-term political implications. Ron Davies's resignation statement, hinting at his traumatic childhood, gave us high theatre and also marked the start of the turmoil in the Welsh Labour Party over who would replace him. John Prescott's inept performance when he stood in for Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time a couple of months ago ranks as the most confidence-shattering half an hour of his political career. For weeks he was the victim of the snobbery he detests ("The poor chap cannot speak or think straight").

Prescott can handle the flak about transport, much of which is not his fault, but the poor performance in the Commons devastated him. For some time afterwards close friends spoke of his disillusionment with politics.

So the Commons does matter. I no longer believe, as I once did, that the whips' office should move to the broadcasters' Westminster headquarters ("If you appear on The World at One, you will lose the party whip"), nor that the Speaker should move to the Today programme ("Order, order. Let Mr Humphrys ask the question, and then, Mr Humphrys, make sure you let the right honorable gentleman answer."). But the Commons matters in a particular way: as an important barometer of the political mood. Because ministers assume, rightly, that senior political journalists do not monitor their words, they are often more candid in the Commons than in the broadcasting studios. Yet the Commons is much less powerful than it should be in holding the government to account. Ministers do not quake in their boots at the prospect of MPs flexing their muscles.

In this area the media - or more specifically newspapers - are much more influential. MPs have been moaning about the state of the Underground for years. Only when the Evening Standard started to run a daily campaign highlighting the decrepit state of the Tube system did the government panic. The Commons boasts a huge majority in favour of the single currency, but newspapers determine the nature of the euro debate.

There are obvious ways of redressing the balance. A different voting system for general elections would not produce such ridiculously large majorities for one party. Doubtless this explains ministers' indifference to electoral reform. In the short term the select committees could be given more teeth and composed in such a way that the government does not pull all the strings. Don't hold your breath. Opposition parties are always keen advocates of increasing the power of the Commons over the executive, while the governing party, for some mysterious reason, loses interest.

Even so, when the new season opens in the autumn, the unfashionable Commons will be the best place to take the political temperature. You never know - with more sacked ministers on the back benches and some ambitious MPs passed over in the reshuffle, the government may be given a rougher ride as well.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!