Magazine article The Spectator

Parliament Needs Radical, Not Self-Serving, Change

Magazine article The Spectator

Parliament Needs Radical, Not Self-Serving, Change

Article excerpt

It is typical of Michael Martin that his laughably short resignation statement contained a fundamental misunderstanding of Parliament. 'This House is at its very best when it is united, ' he said. The precise opposite is true. Gordon Brown and David Cameron's places are precisely two sword lengths apart because it is intended to be an adversarial system. When the Commons chamber was bombed in 1941, Churchill rejected plans to rebuild it in a more collegiate semi-circular format. 'We shape our buildings, ' he said, 'But then our buildings shape us.'

Churchill understood that the slightest change in P arliament, from the architecture to the rule book, alters the balance of power.

And this is why, today, there is no such thing as an objective answer as to how precisely the Commons should reform. Each leader is careful to talk about the need for radical change - but defines it in a way that suits his party agenda. When one hears demands that an issue should be put 'above politics' it is the clearest sign that politicking of the most brutal nature is underway.

It is said of Gordon Brown that he never so much as chooses his tie without thinking how it may in some way destabilise the Tories. This desire has been much in evidence in recent days. Brown's narrative is that the Commons has been a 'gentleman's club' - and we all know which party likes such clubs. His proposal for claims on mortgage interest to be capped at £1,250 is being briefed by Number 10 as a means of countering the greed of moat-owning Tories.

For the Liberal Democrats, radical change means proportional representation. This would elevate them from the 'none of the above' party to kingmakers. When Labour ministers like Douglas Alexander and Alan Johnson float PR it is on the calculation that a Lib-Lab 'progressive' axis will yield a surer return to power. David Cameron's calls for an early election are delivered with the passion of a man with a 20-point opinion poll lead.

But to ask why Westminster was held in contempt long before the Daily Telegraph exposed all the champagne flutes and Jacuzzis takes us on to harder terrain. MPs have, for example, voted their powers away to Brussels and the Celtic fringe, so it should be no surprise that the public has lost respect for them. Elections are focused on a handful of swing voters in swing seats. So it should be no surprise if so many voters have no interest in parties not interested in them.

Radical reform would mean, for example, repatriating control of England's legal system with a Bill of Rights declared senior to anything in Strasbourg. It could mean mandatory reselection after eight years to stop idle MPs taking safe seats for granted. Constituents could be given power to recall an MP, especially one who has betrayed them by defecting to a new party. Several such devices could be deployed to make MPs rest far less easily in their beds at night, but no Speaker is likely to be elected on a manifesto of introducing them.

There is talk about how the coming election for Speaker will be an open contest about a new system, not just a new person. A fine aim, but I realised how futile such hope is when I was stopped by a policeman when returning from Members' Lobby to my desk in the Commons press gallery on Tuesday.

The officer said he had just been instructed not to allow journalists through certain corridors - presumably so reporters could not see which MPs are lobbying whom. …

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