Sunday 6 January 2008
Alan Watkins: Parliament may turn on the Prime Minister
Mr Brown's love of the House may make it difficult for him to be the premier his nearest and dearest want him to be
Mr Gordon Brown's immediate predecessor held a consistent view of the House of Commons. He did not like the place much, held no high opinion of most of its inhabitants and avoided going there if he could possibly help it. Paradoxically, it was the scene of his greatest triumphs, from his performances at Prime Minister's Questions (after a shaky start) to the debates on the Iraq war.
Mr Brown is different. He would like to dominate the chamber, whereas he had been more masterful as Chancellor. Besides, he has a regard for the institution which Mr Tony Blair made no pretence of. One of his first pronouncements as Prime Minister was about the ways in which the powers of the House could be maintained and the independence of its members could be increased.
One of his proposals was that, in future, war could not be declared without the express approval of the House of Commons. All the organs of respectable opinion nodded their heads in sage agreement. How wise! How very wise! Leaving aside the question of whether military action can always be undertaken after a period of debate, we can cheer Mr Brown on his way.
And yet, how much of a safeguard is he really proposing? The war in Iraq was, after all, authorised by the House. A vote was what the then Foreign Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, promised; and a vote was what Mr Straw delivered or, rather, two of them, in two crucial divisions, of February and March 2003. It was the House of Commons that took us into the war in Iraq.
If the Commons had turned Mr Blair down, he would have resigned, or so he tells us. This is a claim I am tempted to view with some scepticism. But it did not happen. As the House overwhelmingly supported the Government, the then Prime Minister remained comfortably in his place.
The Labour backbenchers who had shuffled through the division lobbies took their revenge four years later. Or, at least, some of them did so. A general election had intervened, some members had retired, while others had arrived on the scene. Even so, a collective sense of guilt about the Iraq war had played a part in setting a departure date for Mr Blair in the revolt of September 2006 of peasants, workers and intellectuals.
It was the Parliamentary Party, or a section of it, not the trade unions, the constituency parties or even (or least of all) the Cabinet that hastened Mr Blair's departure. The fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 was different to the extent that, while the backbenchers had played the principal part in the opening stages, the final, fatal blow had been administered by the Cabinet. The story that Mr Blair left office at a date "of his own choosing" is a myth largely got up by the Murdoch press.
The power of Parliament landed us in the Iraq war and could have kept us out of it. It helped to end the spells in office of two of our most powerful post-1945 prime ministers. Mr Brown now tells us that he wants to increase its powers still further. Oddly enough, I believe Mr Brown when he says it. But I do not really believe he means a single word of it.
Would he, for example, welcome a free and open debate on the introduction of identity cards? Perhaps he would: but, if so, he has not made his intentions at all clear. At one stage, under his predecessor, these means of identification were being hailed by ministers as crucial to national security. Lately, the subject has come and gone. In practice, Mr Brown would be better advised not to have a continuing debate, whether "open" or not, but to allow the whole subject to drop.
It is the same with the Government's proposed extended period of detention without trial. It goes up and down according to Ms Jacqui Smith's astrological predictions. There is now, however, a consensus of 28 days among people who make it their business or imagine it is their business to know about these matters.
Why, then, should Mr Brown bother his head any further with conspiracies, revolts, motions on the adjournment, adverse votes, reversals, votes of confidence and the rest of the parliamentary paraphernalia? It is not as if he were specially interested in the procedural subject. Mr Blair was not interested in it either.
George III's mother is supposed to have said: "George, be a King." In much the same spirit must one of Mr Brown's nearest and dearest advised: "Gordon, be a Prime Minister." But there is not the slightest purpose in seeking out conflicts, even if he succeeds in winning one or two of them in the end.
On the European front, however, matters have become quiet. Last year there were predictions of backbench rebellions, on both sides, and of awkward votes in the House, brought about by the Lisbon Treaty generally and by a possible referendum in particular. Quite suddenly, the speculation has ceased. The only subject that caused comment in the press was Mr Brown's turning up late to sign the treaty.
One of the few predictions I have made in recent weeks is that the Lisbon Treaty would prove less divisive for the Government in 2008 than the Maastricht Treaty was for the Conservatives in 1992-93.
Europe divided the Conservatives then, as it does still, though less lethally; Labour are willing to attend the occasional European match, but are not prepared to become fully paid-up members of the supporters' club. The party under John Smith could unite around a cause, the Social Chapter, from which the United Kingdom had largely excluded itself; the present opposition is inviting dissension by calling for a referendum, so reopening all the old quarrels.
Having predicted a certain lack of spirit among the Conservatives over a referendum, I would also predict an increase of bloody-mindedness in the House generally. But the organs of respectable opinion are just as ambivalent on parliamentary power as Mr Brown is himself. Independence for MPs is all very well until they start doing what others deplore. In this respect it is rather like nationalism in the 19th century: for while nationalism striving was a noble virtue, nationalism gained was a danger to the world.
In the days of the Maastricht debates, the Conservative dissidents were often referred to as John Major's "bastards" (though in fact he had two or three of his Cabinet colleagues in mind). These backbenchers were denounced as half-crazed fanatics, as no doubt many of them were, who were impeding the will of the democratically elected government. On one occasion they even combined with the Labour opposition to defeat the Major administration, though that was reversed on a vote of confidence next day.
I do not expect to see Mr Brown defeated over Europe. But something tells me that trouble in Parliament lies ahead.
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