This state of affairs does not seem to me to make a case for fixed-term Parliaments. If we had four-year Parliaments, naturally, the agony would have been at an end last May. But if the term happened to have been fixed at five years, we should be going on as we are now. Indeed, as in Mr Michael Howard's new model prisons, there would be no hope of remission or parole. We should have to serve our time until May 1997.
At least the present system gives the opposition parties the chance to turn out the government. That Mr Tony Blair and the rest of them show little inclination to seize those opportunities which may present themselves does not alter this truth. The freedom is there, if the MPs choose to use it.
But that has always been so, as the former Labour and, later, Social Democrat MP Mr George Cunningham quite correctly never tires of pointing out. Not only can MPs vote a government out of office, which is a drastic sort of action to take. They can also summon any minister they choose, including the prime minister himself, to testify before a standing or select committee. Equally, they can compel any civil servant to answer their questions. They do not elect to take these courses, not because there is any legal or constitutional reason against them, but because they prefer to abase themselves before the party Whips.
To this extent, the persecution of Mr David Willetts, now the Paymaster General, is a piece of humbug. Mr Willetts, then a Whip, is supposed to have proposed in writing to his chief, Mr Alastair Goodlad, that the Conservatives should use their inbuilt majority on a committee to block an over-close investigation of the undoubtedly complicated affairs of Mr Neil Hamilton. This is precisely the kind of activity in which the Whips have always specialised.
In any case, committees of backbenchers (or frontbenchers, for that matter) are, by their very nature, unapt to decide anything calmly or rationally. They almost always divide on party lines. This was why jurisdiction over disputed elections was taken away from the House and transferred to the High Court. The shameless party politics of the select committee into the dealings in Marconi shares, which led to the wrongful acquittal of several Liberal ministers including David Lloyd George, led also to the use of extra-parliamentary committees or tribunals, usually (though not invariably) presided over by a distinguished judge.
The Committee of Privileges was objectionable because it could persecute outsiders, non-MPs, by employing no proper procedure but a kind of lynch law which it made up as it went along. It is no less objectionable now that it has the words "and Standards" tacked on to its name. If in Mr Willetts's case it rules that in future no Whip should influence, or attempt to influence, any committee of the House whatever, well and good. But somehow I do not think it will.
Nor is there any reason - except a disinclination to be shouted at, or a desire for preferment or overseas trips - why MPs should take the slightest notice of what a Whip tells them. They can advise him or Mrs Jacqui Lait, the first woman Conservative Whip, to jump off the Terrace and into the Thames. Mrs Lait, by the way, is not the first woman Whip, for Mrs Margaret Beckett was a Labour Whip in 1975-76. I cannot say which of them I should least like to encounter on a dark night.
And yet the power of the Whips is based largely on trickery. It is a form of political judo, in which the weaker defeats the stronger. Contrary to liberal mythology, the evidence is that MPs have slowly come to realise this.
The myth is that the House of Commons is completely under the control of an all-powerful executive which is, in its turn, commanded by an irremoveable prime minister exercising despotic power. Well, the fate of Lady Thatcher in 1990 finished off the stories of the prime minister's irremoveability. And the actions of Mr John Major virtually weekly since that year - certainly since 1992 - have put paid to the tale of the prime minister's power.
Moreover, government defeats have been increasing, and governments have had to accept them without necessarily calling a general election. Even after the defeat of 28 March 1979 it was being seriously suggested to Lord Callaghan that he should seek a second vote of confidence which, if he won, would carry him on to October. But he had had enough. He had no wish to go into extra time.
In the last war and during the immediate post-war period, governments were rarely defeated: the only examples were on tied cottages for farmworkers and equal pay for teachers. During the 1960s defeats turned into a trickle, notably on Lord Callaghan's 1965 Finance Bill. In the unstable parliamentary climate of the 1970s they were transformed into a flood, notably with the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Bill and with the modifications to Lord Healey's tax measures which were forced on him by Mr Jeff Rooker and Mrs Audrey Wise. In the 1980s it was Lady Thatcher's majorities rather than the lady herself that brought the stream under some kind of control again. Even so, there were some striking defeats, such as the one over Sunday trading.
As there is a liberal error about the number of defeats which governments have sustained, so there is also a liberal ambivalence about whether such reverses are good or bad. It is a bit like the enlightened attitude towards nationalism: that whereas nationalism striving is invariably virtuous, nationalism gained is almost certain to be wicked. So with the House of Commons. The House should assert its independence of the executive. Yet, when it does precisely what it is asked to do, it is being irresponsible or run by an unrepresentative minority or, most reprehensibly of all, boring. These were certainly some of the accusations that were made against it when it was discussing the Maastricht Bill, as a result of which the Government might have fallen.
The position of the Government is even more precarious today. But there is nothing comparable to that measure on the parliamentary horizon. On knives Mr Howard is seeking not so much a compromise as a definition. He is willing to give in. On guns he may be defeated. My guess is that the Government will simply accept the defeat and try to carry on as best it can. This would be a perfectly proper course to follow, but the cries would be "weak" and "resign". For, if there is one thing that liberals hate more than a strong Commons, it is a government which follows their wishes.Reuse content