Revenge of Parliament; Ever since He Came to Power, Mr Blair Has Tried to Destroy Parliament. Now History Has Come Full Circle . . . and the Commons Is Destroying Mr Blair

Daily Mail (London), February 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

Revenge of Parliament; Ever since He Came to Power, Mr Blair Has Tried to Destroy Parliament. Now History Has Come Full Circle . . . and the Commons Is Destroying Mr Blair


Byline: PETER OBORNE

ON TUESDAY night in Parliament, something very dramatic and irrevocable occurred: the death of an experiment in government.

When Tony Blair obtained power in May 1997, he selfconsciously set out to rule Britain in a different way than ever before.

He turned his back on the tradition of representative democracy and the British House of Commons.

Instead he sought to rule like a foreign president, directly answerable to the people without the burdensome restraint of mediating institutions like cabinet and parliament.

Tuesday night showed that Mr Blair's presidential project is over. Power is back in the House of Commons, where it belongs - something which all of us should celebrate, whatever our political persuasion.

No Prime Minister since the post was invented by Sir Robert Walpole almost 300 years ago has ever voted less than Tony Blair.

Even Margaret Thatcher, who was often accused - not least by Labour - of ignoring Parliament, voted in around 30 per cent of all divisions. Tony Blair has struggled to turn up more than 5 per cent of the time.

One very senior official, who worked closely with the Prime Minister for many years, once told me: 'Basically, in 10 Downing Street there is a contempt for Parliament, and that attitude permeates the whole Government.'

On Monday night, Tony Blair paid a deadly price for that casualness and contempt. His failure to pay serious attention to Parliament caused him to lose key measures from his religious hatred Bill in a Commons vote.

But much more important than the damage to a single piece of legislation is the grievous blow to Tony Blair's personal authority.

Tuesday night's humiliation follows the rebellion against the Government's terrorism Bill last November. It means Tony Blair's government has been defeated on vital legislation twice in just three months.

There are now growing doubts about the Prime Minister's ability to get his business through the Commons.

He is being forced to weaken many other pieces of legislation - above all, his flagship Education Bill - in order to avoid similar defeats.

Tony Blair's parliamentary weakness now recalls Jim Callaghan in 1978-79 or John Major in 1996-97. And yet Blair - unlike Major and Callaghan, who led minority governments - has a comfortable majority and won a general election victory only nine months ago.

Blair's weakness is a direct result of his long- standing contempt for Parliament.

In all previous administrations, Labour or Tory, the chief whip has been one of the most senior figures in the entire government, on occasions more powerful than the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Foreign Secretary.

Francis Urquhart in Michael Dobbs's novel House Of Cards is the model for these traditional chief whips: devious, Machiavellian and much feared by rank-and-file MPs.

By contrast, Hilary Armstrong is just a harmless drudge. She commands as much mystique as a wet blanket and inspires as much fear as a tabby cat.

It is the chief whip who keeps the troops in order, using threats if need be. Poor Armstrong threatens nobody.

It is the job of the chief whip to act as an early warning system, scenting trouble.

But poor Armstrong hasn't a clue what is going on. Even her fellow ministers treat her as an absurdity.

It was Armstrong who gave Tony Blair the disastrous advice to stand out for 90 days' detention without trial in the Terrorism Bill - advice which led to defeat. …

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