» Parliament ¦ What You Can Get Away With

We all remember some of the shameful things that happened in Parliament during the last Labour government. Chief among them, of course, were the repeated times when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats used their majority of votes their to repeatedly block any attempts to discuss House of Lords reform. Then, when it managed to get through, they repeatedly voted down Labour’s proposals for a 100% elected second chamber and referendum on the issue. They certainly weren’t a government who got extremely half-hearted about Lords reform after removing most of the hereditary peers, and allowed whatever meagre Parliamentary time they allocated to discussing it to end in inconclusive votes that achieved nothing beyond kicking it into the long grass for years.

I don’t recall any of that happening, but it must have done for this to make any sense. Otherwise, it’d just be someone blocking the chance to have any further reform of the Lords in order to play political games.

Oh, and the whole ‘we should be concentrating on the economy and not doing anything else in Parliament’ argument? Take a look at this list of bills announced in the 2009 Queen’s Speech when the economy wasn’t doing too well either. Oddly, that seems to have a number of bills included in it (including ones on constitutional reform and Lords reform) that are nothing to do with the economy. Perhaps the Labour Party of 2009 – unlike their modern-day counterparts – were able to understand that it’s possible for a Government and a Parliament to do more than one thing at once.

What might have happened if someone had told William Beveridge there was no time for him to waste writing reports on social insurance while there was a war on?

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One of those little things that’s crept into our internet usage over the last few years is the customer satisfaction query. There’s probably another name for it, but what I’m referring to is the little question you often get asked when you’ve queried an FAQ, a support database or help system. Did this answer your query? they’ll ask at the end of your reading, checking to see if they’ve understood what you were asking and have provided the answers you require.

Why I’m thinking about this is because I was watching David Cameron’s appearance in the House of Commons yesterday. And what I was thinking is ‘how much would it change the way Parliament works if the Speaker could ask that to MPs when they’ve asked questions?’ Of course, part of that would be the fun of seeing John Bercow regularly popping up to ask ‘did that answer the Honourable Member’s question? Yes/No/Partially’ but more fundamentally, it would be interesting if an MP could have some reaction, however minimal, to the non-answer that’s been prevalent in the Commons for years. Just a chance to say ‘I’m sorry, but that wasn’t even an attempt an answer’ might make people wonder just what they’re supposed to be doing there other than braying like idiots.

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Job hunting

It seems my search for a comfortable sinecure will have to continue, as Parliamentary tradition has been upheld now Gerry Adams has decided to end the rather pointless deadock over his resignation by accepting the role as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. He may, of course, have noted that David Davis For Freedom took the job of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds and immediately resigned from it in 2008, so is likely planning the same course of action.

It would be interesting if he could keep the role for just a little while, if only so fans of political trivia can pose obscure questions about holders of offices of profit under the British Crown and seats in the Dáil Éireann.

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I’m sure when Sinn Fein set out to reshape the way the UK was governed, this wasn’t what they had in mind:

A Sinn Fein spokesman told Newsnight that Adams “wrote to the Speaker’s office on Friday and informed him of his resignation. It’s a non-issue from our perspective. He submitted his resignation and that’s it. He’s stepped down from that position. He certainly didn’t apply for the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead.”

It seems Mr Adams has found some way of resigning from Parliament without going through these ancient procedures.

Is it just me who thinks Adams has missed a trick here? I can imagine him striding across the North Riding, declaring what he intended to do as Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead and causing at least mild consternation amongst some people. And as Iris Robinson currently holds that other notable position of profit under the Crown – the Chiltern Hundreds – it would have provided an interesting political balance between the two.

But, if you are now to be able to simply resign from Parliament without taking up the posts and MPs will not be needed to perform these vitally important roles, I would like to inform the Speaker and the Queen that I will take on both or either of the titles to ensure that these parts of the British Constitution are not just swept under the carpet.

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100% organic and cruelty free links, these:

Campaign for the Abolition of Parliament – Richard Kemp questions just what the point of some of the activity within Parliament is
Pish to Progressivism! – “Nowadays politicians are more keen to dub themselves “progressives” than they’d be to assure the world they’re not murderers.”
What I learned in the Arid Zone – An interesting look at Phoenix, Arizona, that poses the question of what might happen to it when the water supply starts drying up?
The terror time machine – Wow, it’s like being back in the early days of blogging as Justin McKeating points out the truth when a Tom Watson MP starts fearmongering about eeevil terrorists
Abandoned Remains of the Russian Space Shuttle Project Buran – More ‘worth looking at’ than ‘reading’, but some fascinating pictures of the remains of the Russian Space Shuttle and launch site, including a look inside one of the orbiters.

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Job security

From Nick Robinson’s blog on Eric Illsley:

If he is imprisoned for more than a year he will be automatically expelled from Parliament. If he is not, MPs can – and look certain to – move to have him thrown out anyway.

The big question here, of course, is whether there’s any other job that would take a similar view of a prison sentence. How many other positions would let you waltz back into them as if nothing had happened just because you were only imprisoned for ten months? While it does seem likely that Illsley is going to be expelled anyway, why is the bar for automatic expulsion set so high? Again, I’m trying to think of employers that might hesitate for more than half a nanosecond before sacking someone who’d plead guilty to embezzling on the job.

(Of course, it’s still better than the House of Lords)

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First thought: it’s interesting that most usage of ‘the Coalition’ are now using the capital C of the proper noun for it, which implies some sort of permanence to it, perhaps. This is helped by official Government documents using the same convention, of course. The implication, though, is that Britain is being run not by two different political parties but by one homogenous organisation. Historians of the future will likely have some long-running, if essentially trivial, arguments over just what political designation to give the Government of the UK from 2010 to whenever it ends.

It seems a hell of a lot longer than last Monday that I was writing about how the best hope for the Liberal Democrats would be to find the least worst option of those being presented to us and go for that. In that vast political time of the eleven days since then, I think we’ve done that. There were three real options open to us – excluding the complete non-starter of the ‘it’s too hard, we’re going to sit on our hands and do nothing’ option – coalition with the Tories; co coalition, but a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Tories; or the supposed ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour, Lib Dems, nationalists and whoever else could be persuaded to jump on board the most rickety political bandwagon since David Owen’s Continuity SDP.

Even if the negotiations had proved fruitful, the Labour option was dead from the moment hardline backbenchers started touring the news studios saying they weren’t interested. While you can afford some dissent in a coalition that has a working majority, it’s the kiss of death to one that would only have a razor-thin one, if it even had one at all. This wouldn’t have been a Government, it would have been a political crisis waiting for the right time for it to happen and trigger a new election which would have given Cameron a majority on a 1930s scale.

And that was the same problem with confidence-and-supply – no one would want to run as a minority Government if they can find a way to avoid it, and given that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are broke after the election campaign, spending 6-to-12 months passing popular legislation (abolishing ID cards etc) and then going to the country with a ‘See? We’re nice, give us a majority’ message might not quite have brought about a Baldwinesque majority, but it’d still leave the Opposition in a pretty desperate state.

There’s also a more fundamental issue behind this – what are the Liberal Democrats for? Surely, if anything, it’s for attempting to get Liberal Democrat policies and priorities passed by the Government, and neither of those options offered much of a prospect of that happening, except for those policies where the Liberal Democrat and Conservative position overlapped. Not only that, both options appeared to present a situation where not only would there be next to no Liberal Democrat priorities delivered in this Parliament, but the likely electoral result would dramatically reduce the prospect of those policies and priorities being delivered at any time in the next few Parliaments. Thus, the choice was effectively between two options that would – or at least, were more likely to – lead to Conservative majority Governments with no Liberal Democrat input and the coalition option in which, yes, some Conservative policy would be delivered, but there’d also be a Liberal Democrat presence in there. While this wouldn’t have been the option anyone would have picked from the available smorgasbord at the start of the election campaign, it was the least worst of the options available after it.

It’s worth noting here that one of the things that made the Coalition a workable option was David Cameron’s enthusiasm for it. He wasn’t forced into talks with the Liberal Democrats, he was the one who proposed them the day after the election. Indeed, one of the things that has sold this to Liberal Democrats has been the antipathy of the Conservative right to the deal – after all, if Simon Heffer is so viscerally against something, it can’t be all bad, can it? This is where Cameron has learnt from Blair and got the opportunity to do something Blair couldn’t – by partnering with Clegg, he can pull his party towards the centre and attempt to marginalise the fringe voices on the right. It’s a risky strategy, relying on the idea that the Tory Right isn’t potentially big enough for a rebellion to wipe out the Governmental majority in the Commons, and with the recent arguments over the 1922 Committee, there’s a question of whether Cameron his pushing his party too far too fast, but I suspect there’ll be no dramatic organised move against him just yet, while he’s still enjoying his honeymoon period.

But what about the Liberal Democrats? The mood I’ve seen in the Party over the last week or so has been interesting. When the deal was first announced there was a lot of panic over the idea that we’d gone into Government with the Tories and a lot of threats of tearing up membership cards. However, as reality set in and people took another look around, a lot of those membership cards were sellotaped back together with the acceptance that this was the least worst option for us, and that now we’d taken it, we should be making it work and taking the opportunity of showing what we can do in Government. One of the reasons the Special Conference was such a success and delivered such a thumping majority for the leadership was people realising that their hopes and fears were shared by the vast majority of the party. There were no ‘Huzzah! We’re all Tories now!’ speeches or people suddenly praising the wonders of Iain Duncan Smith, but an understanding that the party had taken on a very big risk with the potential of a very big reward.

It’s still too early to tell how successful the Coalition will be – this Government is still only ten days old, after all, and yet to face any major challenges or crises – and part of me is braced for another General Election within the next twelve months if it all goes wrong. If it was to fall quickly, then normal political service could be resumed very soon, however, if it does succeed and even make it all the way to 2015, then things could look very different as a slow earthquake rumbles through our political system, changing everything.