The loftier peaks of our system of government are almost always enshrouded by mist. From time to time, however, the weather changes, the tops of the mountains become visible, and a watery sun sheds a little light on what may lie at the summits. But usually the fog descends once again, while the citizens gazing upwards are no wiser than they were before.
We shall have to wait for tomorrow's debate before drawing any conclusions about the arrest of Mr Damian Green and the strange behaviour of Mr Speaker Martin, not to mention other assorted functionaries scattered around the palace of Westminster, in addition to the constabulary. In the meantime, a few preliminary observations may be useful.
The overwhelming impression is that party politics have reasserted themselves within days. A week ago, Labour members were attacking either the police or the Commons authorities who had allowed Mr Green's arrest. That energetic former minister Mr Denis MacShane was loud in his criticism. By Wednesday, the day of the Queen's Speech, he seemed to have changed tack. Indeed, the only Labour member to come to Mr Green's defence was that old leftist stalwart Mr David Winnick.
Dr John Reid, the former home secretary, was put up to say that honourable members were not above the law. However, I do not want to give a misleading impression of Dr Reid's overall contribution. On the following day, the Thursday, he rebuked his successor, Ms Jacqui Smith, for not asking more questions before Mr Green's arrest.
Another former home secretary, Mr Michael Howard, was put up for the Tories. The line here was that Mr Green was "only doing his job" as an MP. Mr Howard's own job was to provide reinforcement for his protégé, Mr David Cameron. Oddly enough, I remember Mr Howard, as a newly elected, ambitious barrister, being constantly put up to defend Sir Geoffrey Howe's removal of trade union rights at GCHQ Cheltenham – the one disgraceful action of Lord Howe's notable career. Mr Howard is now back where he started.
Last week's proceedings were a complete mess. Her Majesty could hardly have been bothered to get out the words at all, and who could blame her? Afterwards, Prince Philip made a gesture as if to take the speech out of Mr Jack Straw's purse, bag, pouch or whatever, and to chuck it away, and who could blame the duke? Most insulting of all (I mean to the voters, though the Royals cannot have been best pleased either), Mr Gordon Brown's mortgage proposals were merely tacked on to the speech at the last minute.
Let me suggest what should have happened later on. Ms Harriet Harman, as Leader of the House, should have got up at 2.30pm to refer the arrest to the Committee of Standards and Privileges. The "Standards" bit was added to its old title under John Major in 1995, replacing the ancient Committee of Privileges and the shorter-lived Committee on Members' Interests. Everyone would then have had to keep quiet until the committee had deliberated and produced a report.
Why should the Speaker appoint his own committee to investigate his own conduct, if there was a perfectly good committee in existence already, specifically, to pronounce on such matters as the arrest of mem
bers? The suspicion arises that the Government wants to pack Mr Speaker's committee to ensure a Government majority.
The explanation cannot lie in the requirement that time is of the essence. We have already been told that we shall have to wait weeks, perhaps months, for the report to be published.
In January 1987, some chiefly Labour members were planning to show a film inside the house dealing with a security project called Zircon. The then attorney general, Sir Michael Havers, tried to get an injunction preventing the showing of the film on the premises. The judge said it was nothing to do with him and that it was up to the House. Mr Speaker Weatherill then issued an order prohibiting the showing of the film within the precincts.
The leader of the House, John Biffin, moved a motion confirming the Speaker's order. The House declined to follow the Speaker's and the then government's advice, and sent the case to the Committee of Privileges. Anticlimatically, the committee decided that showing a film was not a "proceeding in Parliament" and accordingly was not protected by parliamentary privilege. The Speaker, the committee concluded, had been entitled to make the order he had made.
In 1938 the Conservative MP Duncan Sandys said on the floor of the house that he had been asked by the attorney general about the information used by Sandys to draft a parliamentary question. The attorney had, according to Sandys, threatened him with the Official Secrets Act. The affair was referred to a special select committee on the Official Secrets Act (rather than to the Committee of Privileges). This special committee concluded that the soliciting or receipt of information was not a "proceeding in parliament" so was not protected by parliamentary privilege. But it went on to say, confusingly, that it would be "inadvisable" to define "the extent of immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act to which members of parliament are or ought to be entitled".
It is, as the lawyers like to say, unnecessary to decide the point. For Mr Green was not arraigned (he does not seem to have been formally charged) under the Official Secrets Act but for a more obscure non-statutory offence of misconduct in a public office.
We cannot try to turn the clock back to 2.25pm last Wednesday, before Mr Speaker Martin made his unconfident statement. We know that it was Ms Jill Pay, the Serjeant at Arms, who allowed the constabulary on to the premises. It seems to be a matter of dispute whether the director of the police operation allowed Ms Pay to exercise her discretion over admittance. As the police did not possess a search warrant she should have been allowed to say: "Not today, thanks very much."
I once had dealings, through no fault of my own, not with the Serjeant at Arms, a retired military gentleman, but with his secretary. She was called Miss Frampton, a formidable lady, who could quell intruders with a glance. I was lucky to escape in one piece. Miss Frampton, I am confident, would have sent the police packing, with only a dismissive look.
In the exchanges of the middle of the week, there was an undercurrent not of revenge exactly, but more of gloating. Mr Tony Blair and his hangers-on had suffered at the hands of the police: so Mr Cameron and his chums were to undergo a similar experience.
There is no true comparison. Dodgy fund-raising is one thing; leaking from government departments another matter entirely. It is not for the criminal law to keep the Government's secrets on its behalf but for the Government itself: in this same case, the permanent secretary of the Home Office and the Home Secretary herself.Reuse content