What a day of twists and turns at Westminster. Some say the House of Commons has ceased to matter. It mattered yesterday. During the afternoon, the Commons staged two separate pieces of extraordinary political theatre. First, the Speaker delivered a statement on the Damian Green affair which was more revelatory than anyone had expected. Next, the party leaders clashed over a Queen's Speech that will provide the meat of a legislative programme in the run-up to a general election. At the end, Gordon Brown made an announcement that, for once, had not been leaked in advance by anyone, as he outlined his proposal to protect those threatened with repossession in the deepening recession.
At the end, where did yesterday's dramas leave us, beyond a desire to lie down in a darkened room? I sense that a bright light has started to shine on one highly-charged political event which was previously obscured by darkness. A grey, swirling fog continues to overwhelm the other event with far more important long-term consequences.
The Speaker's statement to the Commons was the event that shed light after several days in which there has been a lot of shouting in the dark. In effect, he confirmed that parts of the Metropolitan Police are literally out of control. Seemingly accountable to no elected body in relation to "operational procedures", they appear to be able to act more or less in any way they want. We now know that officers entered Green's office in Parliament without a warrant and without making it clear to the Serjeant-at-Arms that she was not compelled to allow them access.
I agree with those MPs who suggested after the Speaker's statement that the police officers involved should be called to the Commons to explain what they were up to. That should focus the minds of those who seem to think they can act as their own naïve instincts suggest. While they are at it, MPs could ask a question or two about the way various figures were arrested in the "cash for honours" inquiry as well.
Leaders of any institution, including senior police officers and civil servants who can hide away from public scrutiny, will make misjudgements. An appearance in front of the Commons with cameras broadcasting the exchanges would keep them on their toes. As I wrote on Tuesday, the essence of the problem is that the Metropolitan Police are accountable to too many different bodies and in other ways they are accountable to no one at all. But now we know more about the other side of the story. The Speaker or the Serjeant-at-Arms could have asked the police about their rights and chose not to do so. A lot of explanations in this drama begin with the words "I was told..." – as if various mighty figures were passive individuals.
The Speaker "was told" the night before about a possible arrest. Did he not consider cancelling his plans and asking a lot of questions? Did the Serjeant-at-Arms not consider asking questions as she "was told" what was going to happen. This is a saga that exposes incompetence, as well as a lack of proper accountability.
The relatively minor story looked as if it would overwhelm the subsequent Queen's Speech debate. David Cameron opened his speech with a long section on some of the questions that he believes arise from it. When Brown came to speak, he was interrupted several times and asked for his reaction to the fact that police were able to enter Parliament without a warrant. He replied woodenly that this was a matter for the inquiry announced by the Speaker. He would have been daft to give his personal verdict as those asking the questions knew, but in these situations Brown cannot seem to escape from formulaic answers. There have been several occasions recently where his reliance on doggedly wooden answers has made him look shifty. This was another.
The reason Brown is not a deft debater is, I suspect, that he is not a fan of debates. His political style and his overall image are deliberately evasive as he seeks to acquire as broad an appeal as possible. Debates can provide too much definition. Cameron was right to observe in his speech that Brown is more at ease in public debates with apolitical or, arguably, artificial dividing lines, such as the one he has erected in relation to the economic crisis between "action and inaction". It has always been Brown's style. In the build-up to the 1997 election, he established a divide between "fair and unfair taxation", a notion that raised a thousand questions and yet was more fruitful terrain from Labour than one between "high and low taxation".
His latest dividing line, while not making him the most engaging debater, might prove to be cunningly effective too. The Queen's Speech had been heavily trailed, not least by Brown, who held a pointless preview debate as long ago as last summer. The number of Bills has narrowed since then, thankfully, but the items are as familiar as ever. What had not been announced in advance was the initiative with which Brown ended his speech: the plan to allow mortgage interest payments to be deferred.
With a flourish, he had changed the terms of the debate and was on the offensive once more with a policy that might help to address the worries of Middle England homeowners. Suddenly, his deliberately safe and managerial soundbite about action compared with inaction came to life and the Tories were on the defensive again.
At the moment, this is the essential divide between the parties. Brown has cover for action because he has declared he will do what it takes to get Britain through the recession. Cameron has taken a different position, arguing that high levels of borrowing mean the Government cannot afford to do very much. This will leave Cameron on the defensive for much of the next few months up to the Budget in the spring.
Cameron made a good speech yesterday in terms of tone and, to some extent, substance as well. Not a word of it will resonate because he was upstaged by Brown's announcement that dramatically lifted what had been a rather rambling speech. He knew what was coming, the reassuring soundbite that "losing your job should not mean losing your home".
Uncertainty about the depth of the recession is the great fog still hovering over British politics. Rightly in my view, the Government pulls every lever to get the ailing economy going again. The Bills in the Queen's Speech and the levers that are being pulled will look puny if the recession is deep and long. On the other hand,if the economy is starting to stabilise in the run-up to the next election, the dividing line between action and inaction, however simplistic, will be a potent one.
When will the fog of recession lift? That is a much more important question than who did what in the arrest of Damian Green – an event that will be forgotten by the time of the next election.Reuse content