Commons as muck

12 Dec 08
PHILIP JOHNSTON | The parliamentary Christmas recess, which starts next week, cannot come quickly enough for Michael Martin, the embattled Commons speaker.

The parliamentary Christmas recess, which starts next week, cannot come quickly enough for Michael Martin, the embattled Commons speaker.

 The immediate danger to his position might have passed, but his predicament is a metaphor for everything that has gone wrong with Parliament: its loss of authority; a lack of clarity about its role; a failure to understand its central historic importance; a supine readiness to get pushed around; and a querulous attitude when all this is pointed out.

The decline in its status predates the Labour Party’s arrival in office in 1997 but has accelerated since then. The encroachment of the European Union upon Parliament’s sovereignty has been the biggest change, undermining its power and self-confidence. But it has been instrumental in its own diminution, lamely trodden all over by a government that spent two terms in office with a three-figure majority and still displays the arrogance that goes with such power.

Throughout most of this period, the prime minister was a politician who, by his own admission, ‘never pretended to be a House of Commons man’ yet who was, preposterously, given a standing ovation as he left the chamber for the last time in the summer of 2007. Tony Blair proceeded to show his indifference, even contempt, for Parliament by immediately resigning his seat, something none of his predecessors had done.

David Lloyd George, ousted as prime minister in 1922 when the Tories withdrew support for the wartime coalition, did not leave Parliament until 23 years later. Margaret Thatcher, ousted by her own party in 1990, stayed on until the next general election two years later.

But Blair couldn’t get out fast enough. It spoke volumes about the diminished status of an institution to whose slow death he had been the principal contributor.

In 1997, Prime Minister’s Questions, hitherto held on Tuesday and Thursday, were changed to a single Wednesday session. This was defended on the grounds that it amounted to the same amount of time — 30 minutes a week. But there is a world of difference between the prime minister being required to face the Commons once a week and twice. They are less likely to get away with dissembling if they have to come back two days after an infelicitous answer and are more likely to be required to address topical matters.

But it was an imposition accepted by Blair’s predecessors. It should be restored.

Then there were the changes to the hours, ostensibly to make the Commons ‘family-friendly’ but in reality to limit the opportunities for late-night plotting, or plotting of any sort since it meant MPs began to visit Parliament less often. There are fewer sitting days now than at any time since the Second World War.

Long recesses, rows over expenses, empty benches, windy rhetoric, legislation that is inadequately scrutinised because everything is guillotined, select committees whose reports are routinely ignored, European scrutiny that is overridden. No wonder a gulf has opened between Parliament and the people.

As Professor Anthony King of Essex University wrote recently: ‘Britons have always been sceptical about politics and politicians. Now their scepticism has morphed into cynicism, even contempt.’

What a sad, but accurate, commentary on what most people used to regard, along with the monarchy and the judiciary, as our most precious institution. The incursion into Parliament by the police, acting on an initial request from the government to investigate a leak of information embarrassing to ministers, highlighted the extent of that contempt. This would have been unheard of 20 years ago but the police, without a warrant, did it because they knew they could.

And what have they learned from the Green/Martin fiasco, so fatuously dismissed by some Labour MPs as a storm in a teacup? Not a lot, judging by this week’s debate in the Commons. No attempt was made to reach a cross-party consensus on an issue that should have been a matter of great constitutional import.

The government tabled a motion without consulting the opposition parties about its contents and then used its majority to curtail debate to three hours; and even though it was clear that many Labour MPs wanted longer, they were whipped to support the timetable and the motion.

Frank Field made a telling speech, urging MPs to ‘scoop some credit’ from the affair by supporting an amendment allowing an immediate inquiry by a committee of ‘wise’ men and women, assuming they could be found. However, the government wanted to delay this until all possible police inquiries had concluded, which could be weeks or even months. The government won by four votes. The opposition parties said they would boycott the inquiry. Labour MPs cheered as the tribal loyalties were reasserted. No credit was scooped. It makes you weep.

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