Saturday, June 27, 2009

Who will clean up Parliament?

Who will be the one to clean-up politics in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal? David Cameron? Gordon Brown? Or perhaps new Speaker John Bercow? Here's today's Journal column.

So was it a petty act of revenge by Labour MPs who know they are going to lose their seats and want to leave as poisoned a legacy as they can for David Cameron and the Tories?

Or was it a long-overdue attempt to provide a fresh start for a House of Commons tarnished almost beyond redemption by the MPs’ expenses scandal?

If the truth be told, the election of one-time Thatcherite radical John Bercow as the 157th Commons Speaker this week was probably a bit of both.

While some of the MPs who voted for him on Monday undoubtedly did so to make life uncomfortable for the Tories, who by and large detest their former colleague, others genuinely saw him as the candidate best-placed to provide a “clean break” with recent events.

Okay, so I wanted Sir Alan Beith to win, and I thought Margaret Beckett would win, but it is clear the former Foreign Secretary suffered from a backlash in the final days against what were seen as government attempts to install her.

As one sketch-writer who wrote a delightful account of the election using horseracing metaphors put it: “Mrs Beckett was deemed to have made excessive use of the whips.”

I was right about one thing, and that was that the election would be determined by whether Labour MPs decided to swing en bloc behind a single candidate

In the end they did, but that candidate was not Mrs Beckett, but Mr Bercow, who at 46 becomes the youngest Speaker since the 19th century and the first person of the Jewish faith to hold the post.

Already the new Speaker has made his mark. Indeed, anyone watching his first Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday might have concluded that he, not Gordon Brown or Mr Cameron, was the real star of the show.

Ticking off braying MPs for making too much noise during the weekly half-hour joust, he told them: “The public doesn't like it and neither do I."

On another occasion, he told the Tory backbencher Michael Fabricant to calm down as "it is not good for your health".

And he cut short a rambling question by the Labour backbencher Patrick Hall on housing, telling him he had “got the gist” of what he was saying.

I suspect Mr Bercow is right in thinking that the public will be generally sympathetic to his attempts to bring what he calls “an atmosphere of calm, reasoned debate” to the parliamentary bear-pit.

But he is walking a difficult tightrope. Just as spin doctors are not supposed to become the story, neither are House of Commons Speakers.

Although it is understandable that he wanted to make a splash with his first PMQs, he will need to learn to fade into the background if he is to avoid becoming a political football like Michael Martin.

To paraphrase Dr W.G. Grace, if he starts to believe that the public have come to watch him umpiring rather than the MPs performing, then his days in the Chair will be numbered.

The central conundrum facing Mr Bercow is ultimately the one that did for Mr Martin – is the Speaker merely the servant of the House, or should he or she in some way seek to be its master?

The truth is that Mr Bercow will somehow have to be both – seeking to nudge the House in the direction of reform, while ultimately reflecting its wishes.

Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Brown, at least, do not have that dilemma. Each of them is seeking to persuade the public that he is the man to “clean up politics” in the wake of the expenses scandal.

Sadly for the Prime Minister, it is a contest which currently he is decisively losing.

From the start of the expenses row, Mr Cameron has led the way in taking action against his own recalcitrant MPs, and this week he ordered them to pay back another £125,000 to the taxpayer.

The Tory leader seems to be preparing the ground for a large-scale clearout which could see up to half of the current crop of Conservative MPs stand down at the election.

In a speech this week, he also sought to link the need for reform with the need for people to regain power over their own lives, highlighting the drift towards the “surveillance state” under Labour.

Mr Brown has concentrated more on wider constitutional reforms, but has been predictably outflanked on this score by Mr Clegg, who has the advantage of leading a party that genuinely believes in it.

In a speech this week, the Prime Minister said voters wanted to see his government clean-up politics, help people through the recession, and – wait for it – “put forward our vision.”

But the fact that Mr Brown is still talking about setting out his “vision” two years after coming to power is surely emblematic of the failure of his administration.

Nowhere has this failure been more acute than in the field of restoring trust in politics, which was supposed to be the big theme of his premiership in the wake of the loans for lordships scandal and the general moral decay of the Blair years.

If cleaning-up Parliament had been part of Mr Brown’s confounded “vision” in the first place, Parliament would probably not be in the mess it is in now.

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James Higham said...

Did you see Bercow's interview on Andrew Allison's site?

Robert said...

He needs a more powerful drug, but how about a vision of the Tories running the country for the next twenty or so years, nightmare no we have had that already