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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 11:06 GMT
A good day for Parliament

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair is accused of sidelining Commons
If only the House of Commons was always like this.

If there is one thing just about everyone agreed on, it was that Wednesday's Iraq debate saw Parliament at its best.

Anyone who watched the proceedings witnessed MPs engaged in genuine, sometimes passionate but always serious debate.

For once this really did look like the cradle of democracy rather than the infant school playground.

Tony Blair's backbench rebels were not only voicing their own concerns over war with Iraq, they were also representing their constituents. Which is what they are for.

No wonder the prime minister is accused of wanting to sideline Parliament.

When the chips are really down, and the issues are as big as life and death, MPs can surprise everyone by acting like grown ups.

Rubber stamp

Unfortunately for the prime minister that increasingly means defying the government.

Usually all the old whips' tricks - threats, bribes and blackmail - combine with a tendency towards bottom kissing to ensure the Commons is simply the government's rubber stamp.

This is partly a consequence of huge majorities, but also because the job of being an MP is now seen as a career rather than a calling.

Anti-war march at Parliament
Rebel MPs spoke for protesters
One of the downsides of a massive majority, however, is that there are a huge number of backbenchers whose careers will never progress and have little to lose from rebellion.

Sadly, of course, Wednesday's debate only appeared extraordinary because it is such a rare event nowadays.

It was not always like this. Even when Margaret Thatcher had her huge majority there were still big debates that mattered.

And, unlike the current prime minister, she often sat through them.

Worth watching

The prime minister's decision to walk out of the chamber after 35 minutes or so was seen by his critics as the clearest possible indication of how seriously he treats the chamber.

Of course he has other affairs demanding his attention, But many of his MPs believe those could have been put on hold just this once.

Still, on this occasion, the Commons came into its own. It was actually worth watching.

Unfortunately for the rebels, the vote will have absolutely no effect on Tony Blair's policy. After all, he did actually win it.

There is no sign of a willingness to take account of the rebellion and many Labour MPs believe that is extremely bad news for Parliament and, some claim, democracy.

The question is - will there be price to pay for that in the long term.




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