A curious silence from the Party of the Pure

Political Commentary
Click to follow
WESTMINSTER wisdom used to be that it was Labour members who got themselves into trouble over money, Tories over sex. Today the Conservatives appear to hold the monopoly of behaviour that is unlawful, immoral, questionable or merely imprudent, irrespective of whether the erring hand is in the till or up the skirt.

Perhaps wisely, Mr Tony Blair shows no inclination to make a political virtue of this difference between the parties. It may be that, if he pointed to the lack of scandal in the People's Party, the resistance to temptation shown by its members, he might make it look even duller than it is.

When allegations were first made against Mr John Major's government generally, and Mr Graham Riddick and Mr David Tredinnick specifically, the Conservatives came up with a pat response. It was to point to the trade unions' power within the Labour party and to their sponsorship of MPs.

Contrary to popular belief, sponsorship has been increasing. After the 1970 election, 30 per cent of Labour MPs were union-sponsored; after 1987, 56 per cent; after 1992, 53 per cent. But what usually happens is that the union makes a contribution of a few hundred pounds towards election expenses. Since the case in the mid-1970s, when Mr Arthur Scargill was rebuked for trying to put pressure on NUM-sponsored MPs, there has been no equivalent example.

Union sponsorship is quite different from a paid consultancy. Though the firm of consultants for which the MP is working may be declared in the Register of Members' Interests, the firm's clients, on whose behalf the member is using his influence, is undisclosed. It is, by and large, a Conservative problem with which we are dealing or, rather, not dealing. The same is true of ministers who retire to the City with all the unhurried ease of a diner rising from the table to spend the rest of the evening in a club armchair.

I have pointed out before the assumption in Tory circles that, when Mr Douglas Hurd finally departs, he will be accommodated somewhere in the City, because "poor Douglas, you know, has no money". Lord Wakeham, Mr John MacGregor and numerous others have already been safely gathered in, 'ere the winter storms begin. Nor is this a Conservative problem merely because since 1979 the only former ministers available for gainful employment have been Conservatives. There is simply no market for the non-Conservative variety.

Thus Lords Callaghan and Healey sit in the Upper House and appear on television. Lord Jenkins combines these activities with writing books and articles and being Chancellor of Oxford University. When Anthony Crosland, who had been President of the Board of Trade, lost office in 1970, he told me that he would almost certainly be receiving offers of work both from industry and from the City. He would probably choose to go into industry, as being more part of the "real world". Alas, no such offers arrived, whether from the Square Mile or, indeed, the real world. And so he tried to settle down in opposition to being what he called a "full-time politician".

It is said that the committee under Lord Nolan will shortly recommend that ministers should, when moving to outside jobs where their experience is at a premium, be placed under the same inhibitions as civil servants. There is another committee, under the former minister Lord Carlisle, to control the movements of the mandarins. Lord Nolan will probably recommend that the Carlisle Committee should supervise the ministers as well. The Government is opposed to this solution or, indeed, to making any substantial changes in present practice, which is at once a free-for-all and a lucky dip.

Any moderately scrupulous retiring minister should know instinctively what to do. If he does not, he should first discover what Lord Carlisle's ruling would have been if the department's permanent secretary had been making the move. He should then follow it. This honourable but simple course does not seem to be pursued. In default, I should give the task of adjudication to the Cabinet Secretary, if the holder of that post were different.

Of the Cabinet Secretaries in my experience, Sir Norman Brook and Sir Burke Trend were not only formidable characters but their own men. Sir Robert Armstrong had more of - how can one put it? - the courtier about him. Sir Robin Butler is different again. He is not so much the courtier as the office manager, a dab hand with the paperclips and keeping up the stocks of embossed stationery, but hardly an independent force. In the absence of a strong Cabinet Secretary, the Carlisle Committee is probably better than nothing.

The Nolan Committee is thought to be recommending another body again to supervise MPs. The most popular candidate seems to be the Audit Commission or one of its offshoots under Sir John Bourn (who already reports to the Public Accounts Committee). If Mr John Biffen, the most highly regarded backbencher in the place, says that the convention that the Commons regulates its own procedures should now be ended, that is more rather than less likely to happen.

There is a bogus constitutional argument against any change of this kind. It is that, as Parliament is sovereign, to allow any outside body to control its activities (even one containing representatives of Parliament itself) is a breach of that sovereignty and accordingly unconstitutional or even unlawful. Mr Michael Spicer could be heard putting this argument in more prolix form on Newsnight last Thursday. I should have thought that a Cambridge graduate, even one in economics, would know better.

It is not Parliament but the Queen in Parliament which is sovereign and passes statutes. The House of Commons is only a constituent part of Parliament. A resolution of the House can regulate the conduct of the House's proceedings but not the law of the land. When the Chancellor sits down after his budget speech, resolutions are passed putting his tax proposals into effect. They come into force immediately, not because they are resolutions of the House but because the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968 lays down that they should have the force of law.

Anyone listening to Thursday's debate on the Committee of Privileges' recommendation - that Messrs Riddick and Tredinnick should be suspended for, respectively, 10 and 20 days - would have concluded that the sooner some new body came into being the better for all concerned. The members seemed chiefly interested in blaming the Sunday Times for all the bother. Labour's principal speaker, Mrs Ann Taylor, was well to the front of the pack. She is no more up to her present job than she was to her last. From her evidence to the committee, it seems that Labour is no keener than the Tories are on the changes which Lord Nolan has in mind. Here, at any rate, Mr Blair shows no disposition to emphasise the purity of his party.

Comments