Saturday, May 23, 2009

The big, unanswered questions

Who will be the next Speaker? Will there be an October election? And will we get proportional representation? Just some of the many unanswered questions that have arisen from the MPs expenses scandal. Here's today's Journal column.

For most of the past two years, the biggest unanswered question in politics has been whether Gordon Brown will survive to lead Labour into the next election, and it is a question that is still awaiting an answer.

But seldom can any week in politics have thrown up as many unanswered questions as the last one, a week which has seen the first defenestration of a House of Commons Speaker for 300 years and talk of a “quiet revolution” in our political system.

Several careers besides those of Michael Martin have already ended. Several more are hanging by a thread. And the pressure for a wholesale electoral clear-out of the "Duck Island Parliament" is growing.

We now know the true, appalling extent of the scandal over MPs' expenses. What we can still only guess at at this stage is its longer-term impact.

First, there are the small-to-middling questions, mainly concerning individuals. How many more MPs will be forced to stand down at the next election? Who will lose their jobs in the next reshuffle? Who will be the next Speaker?

Then there are the slightly broader questions. How will the public’s anger at the behaviour of the political classes feed through into voting habits? Will the “incumbency factor” that has always favoured sitting MP go into reverse? And will the next election herald a new wave of independents?

Then of course there is the question of when that election will finally be held, and whether Mr Brown will pay the political price for failing to reform the system until it was too late.

Finally, perhaps the most far-reaching question of all. Will the expenses scandal ultimately result in an historic reshaping of our parliamentary democracy, or alternatively bring about its final demise?

In terms of the questions around the futures of individual MPs, the North-East is as good a place as any to start.

Will Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland, controversially reselected in preference to neighbouring MP Sharon Hodgson, now fund himself deselected after claiming for the cost of buying out his partner’s £45,000 stake in his London flat, despite his very full and frank explanations of the reasons behind the move?

Will Durham North’s Kevan Jones and other “squeaky clean” MPs who voluntarily laid bare their expense claims be rewarded for their candour, or will they find themselves tar-brushed along with their sleazier counterparts?

And will Sir Alan Beith crown a notable career of public service by achieving his ambition of the Speakership - or will the fact that both he and his wife, Baroness Maddock, claimed second home allowances on the same property ultimately count against him?

On that last point, I have to say it would give me great pleasure to see the long-serving Berwick MP in the Speaker’s chair, although if he were not standing down from Parliament, Sunderland South’s Chris Mullin would be an equally admirable choice.

If the truth be told, the North-East should have had the Speakership last time round. The region had three candidates in Mr Beith, David Clark, and John McWilliam, all of whom would have done a better job than Michael Martin – though some would argue that is not saying much.

Ultimately Mr Martin fell not because of shaky grasp of Commons procedure or even last week's ill-judged attacks on backbench MPs, but because his continual attempts to block the freedom of information request over MPs expenses caused this whole debacle.

Just imagine for a moment that Dr Clark had got the job. Would he have fought the provisions of the freedom of information legislation that he himself pioneered? Of course not, and our Parliament would now be much the better for it.

But enough of the ancient history. What on earth will happen to the House of Commons now?

One oft-heard prediction this week is that we will end up with a chamber full of Esther Rantzens, Martin Bells and toast of the Gurkhas Joanna Lumley, and it's certainly one possibility.

We are living through such an extraordinary period of “anti-politics” that there could even be a return to the situation that existed before the rise of the party system in the 19th century – the “golden age of the independent House of Commons man” as one historian called it.

But while celebrity politicians may well play a part, I think the next election is just as likely to throw up more “local heroes” like Dr Richard Taylor, who defeated an unpopular Labour MP over hospital closures and is now himself even being mentioned as a possible Speaker.

Should that election now take place sooner than spring 2010? Well, there has to be a very strong argument for saying that, just as the Speaker who resisted reform for so long has had to go, so too should the Prime Minister who failed to grasp the nettle.

When a Parliament has lost moral authority to the extent that this one has, a clear-out becomes almost a democratic necessity, and Cromwell’s words to the Rump Parliament – “In the name of God, go!” - once more have a certain resonance.

Against that, there is a case for allowing passions to cool. In the words of one commentator: "If an election were called next week, Britain might well end up with a Parliament for the next five years that is defined entirely by its views on claiming for bath plugs, rather than on how to get the country out of the worst recession in 70 years."

Mr Brown will no doubt still try to hang on until next May, but in my view an autumn 2009 election has become significantly more likely in recent days.

As far as the longer-term implications of the scandal are concerned, there is already talk of radical constitutional reforms including an elected second chamber, fixed-term Parliaments, more powerful select committees, and even proportional representation.

I'll believe it when I see it....but if a consensus does emerge that radical parliamentary reform is the way out of this mess, it stands to reason that the party that will most benefit will be the one that has consistently advocated such reform for the past 40 years.

The Liberal Democrats have long been the recipients of the "anti-politics" vote, and on this issue as well as that of the Gurkhas, their leader Nick Clegg has looked over the past fortnight like a man whose time has come.

Sir Alan Beith is not the only Lib Dem for whom this crisis may prove an historic opportunity.

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Robert said...

I never bet cannot afford it, but I have put in a group £10 each, that Gordon Brown will go before Christmas, actually I think he will stick until told to go and then a battle will arise. The next speaker who really cares we all know some old fart will get it, somebody who's best place is in a retirement home. After the last twelve years I do not care if the BNP Greens and Elsie Tanner makers a come back and she is dead.

Anonymous said...

Just as the Euro is the panacea for every economic problem this country has ,PR is the panacea for every other national problem from voter apathy to MP's expenses.
I applaud the sense of humour.

Wayne Smith said...

Proportional representation is not a panacea, but a dysfunctional voting sytem is the source of a sea of woes.

Robert said...

Dysfunctional what the hell do you think this two party nonsense is then.

Keith Perch said...

So, Paul, as an ex-lobby correspondent, what do you make of Peter Preston's piece in the Observer today?

Anonymous said...

PR just allows the smallest party to remain permaneantly in power,how corrupt is that.

Paul Linford said...


Re the question of why the Lobby didn't lead the way on MPs expenses, I think the short answer is that Heather Brooke beat them to it!

Of course I have not been in the Lobby since 2004 but, as someone with a reasonable track record of exposing politicians' dodgy expense claims, I would like to think that were I still there I would have availed myself of the FoI Act and requested to see, at the very least, the claims of those MPs on my (North-East) patch.

James Higham said...

Do you see three weeks and he'll be out?

Anonymous said...

I give him 2 weeks

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