Reading this article about how MPs who want to climb the greasy ladder to the Ministerial Jaguar have to toe the line continually in Parliament reminded me of one idea I’d like to see tried to try and free Members of Parliament.
We currently have a situation where to be a Minister within the UK Government, you have to be a Member of Parliament – either Commons or Lords. Unlike other countries – the US is probably the best and most well-known example – we don’t formally separate the executive and legislative parts of the government and so David Cameron serves both as Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for Witney. (And if the Tories got a majority but he lost his seat, he wouldn’t be able to continue as PM)
There are many advantages to this system, and for once, it’s not one that Britain is alone in using (Angela Merkel, for instance, represents the constituency of Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I in the Bundestag). Leaders and ministers need to have that local mandate to be able to serve, and it ensures that ministers are accountable to Parliament. On the down side, however, there are the issues mentioned in the article of MPs having to do as they’re told if they want to get into Ministerial office, and constituencies represented by a senior Minister not getting the same sort of representation in Parliament as those represented by backbenchers.
Now, one way to change this would be to follow the American example and completely separate the two, but that would be a pretty radical change to the system and I’m not completely sure the country is ready for the idea of a directly-elected Prime Minister and executive. However, the French system does suggest a way in which the two can be separated a bit more, and fits in with British tradition too.
Until the First World War, MPs who took a post as a minister had to resign and be re-elected in a by-election if they became a Minister because their circumstances had changed. The French still have a system whereby if a member of the National Assembly is appointed to the Government (and some other constitutional posts) they cease to be a member of the Assembly. However, they circumvent the need for a by-election by using the principle of a substitute. By this process, a person who may become a minister names a substitute at the time of their election – as in Britain, having the individual electoral mandate is seen as important – and if they do take up a role in the government, their place in it is taken by the substitute. That way ministers still need to be elected, but in day-to-day business, there’s a greater separation between Parliament and the Executive.
It’s not the be-all and end-all of constitutional reform, and would need some more thinking through about the wider ramifications, but it’s an idea that might bring some improvements and one I’d be interested to see tried.