Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Whatever happened to the new politics?

Behind the coalition
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The Independent Online

After the initial shock and awe, we're getting used to the sight of Dave and Nick. Even if the coalition began as a shotgun wedding rather than a love match, it could yet be a productive union, and without playing Candide or Pollyanna, one might imagine ways in which some creative symbiosis comes from the Tory and Liberal traditions.

But hang on. Whatever happened to the new clean, clear politics we were promised? In terms not of policy or programmes, but of the broader political culture, it's business as usual: dirty deals, stitch-ups, and the continuing erosion of the authority of parliament.

If there was a discernible public mood before the election it was sheer revulsion from politics and politicians as a whole. That was true even before the expenses scandal, but that appalling affair precipitated a spasm of rage. Some MPs have been charged with criminal offences, and parliament as a whole was stained. And yet the worst of it was how little MPs seemed to understand the contempt the rest of us felt for them.

This was gruesomely demonstrated last year by the choice of a new Speaker when Michael Martin was forced to quit by the scandal. The Labour MPs childishly chose John Bercow to succeed him, as an act of spite against the Tories. They had no idea how this felt outside their own insulated village. It was as if they had said, "So you voters think we're all a bunch of sleazy mediocrities. Hey, you know what, we are – and we'll show it by the Speaker we elect!"

Now the new Parliament, at the instigation of the coalition leaders, has actually and sickeningly chosen Bercow again. It is impossible to exaggerate how unworthy he is, the very type of opportunistic, ambitious careerist the rest of us wanted to see the back of. We all change our minds about politics. But Bercow's transition from the "Hang Mandela!" far right of the Tory party under Thatcher to touchy-feely lovey-dovey progressivism is intolerably cynical.

Even the claim, advanced last week by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, that Speaker Bercow has stood up to the Government misses the point. His intuition that the clever thing to do would be to present himself as the backbencher's friend was merely the latest display of his opportunism. And his own expenses record was disgraceful. He claimed the maximum permissible second home allowance for four years running, a total of £143,455 between 2001 and 2008. In one year he bought and sold properties in both his constituency and London, "flipping" them, in the phrase, for fiscal advantage, and then suffered from a severe attack of amnesia ("so far as I can remember") about which had been his first home, or whether he had paid capital gains tax.

There was no need for Cameron or Clegg to humiliate Bercow publicly. He could have been told in private that his re-election would be opposed, and that he could go quietly and be replaced by a comparatively honourable man, a Lib Dem such as Sir Menzies Campbell or Alan Beith. As it is, the very sight of him as Speaker makes a statement, and a shameful one.

Before the coalition was formed, Cameron and Clegg both protested their deep love of parliament and their wish to respect its authority. And how is this respect displayed in practice? They propose a grotesque fiddle by which the votes of 55 per cent of MPs will be required to unseat the government, thereby removing the very basis of parliamentary government and the very purpose of the Commons. They really might as well push through an Enabling Act, and then rule by decree.

All the parties now face difficulties with their backbenchers, who are quiescent for the moment but will grow increasingly restless. The Labour answer is to bulldoze the choice of a new leader by dictating an absurdly short timetable for the procedure: even though the choice won't be announced until the autumn, the parliamentary Labour Party was told that nominations would close next Monday.

This deliberately makes it harder for an independent-minded candidate to find the support of the necessary 33 MPs. And as John McDonnell, one of the candidates, has said, the stitch-up, giving MPs no time to consult their constituency parties, "curtails the nomination process drastically and discredits the election right from the start". Now the party bosses (who are they exactly?) have generously said that there will be an extension of the deadline – until 27 May.

That's positively inoffensive compared with Cameron's putsch against the 1922 Committee. This is the voice of the Tory backbenchers, which is why by definition ministers cannot vote at its meetings. With no forewarning, Cameron demanded that ministers should be able to vote. As the backbencher Peter Bone said, MPs were "bounced" into the change. "You wouldn't get away with that in an African state."

And look just how many ministers there are to overawe the 1922! Not everyone may be aware of how extraordinary the inflation of the payroll vote has been over the past century. In 1900, a Commons of 670 included no more than 33 MPs in salaried government posts. This was 68 by 1950, and 80 by 1990, while there was also a huge increase in the number of parliamentary private secretaries, the bag-carriers who aren't paid but are expected to vote loyally, from nine to 47 over the course of the century. Our new ministry-of-some-of-the-talents comprises, in the Commons, 76 cabinet ministers and junior ministers, and 17 whips and assistant whips (if I've counted the great number correctly). With the two law officers, that's a total of 95 out of 650 MPs who will be on the salaried payroll, even before they begin to appoint another ridiculous number of Principal Private Secretaries.

In opposition, politicians talk sweetly about their love of limited constitutional government, but the moment they taste power it acts like a drug, and they want to get their way. That has happened this time with startling speed. At least our new rulers might spare us the pretence that they have any reverence at all for the authority of the Parliament we elected on 6 May.