Steve Richards: Here's how to embolden our MPs

For a stronger House, we need a separation of the executive and the legislature

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The election of the Speaker seemed more important than it really was. The unpredictability of the outcome and the format of the contest gave it a tinge of false excitement.

Viewers brought up on Big Brother and I'm A Celebrity would have felt at home if they watched the drama unfold yesterday. Some candidates were evicted at an early stage. Others stayed on until the grand denouement. The dynamics were similar too. Reality TV gives powerless viewers an artificial sense of purpose and importance when they vote to evict someone. Yesterday the candidates wooed MPs, a group more used to being traduced. For a few hours, tormented MPs became the revered masters. Only they mattered as they determined the outcome.

But the contents of the speeches from the candidates gave away the relative insignificance of the election. Margaret Beckett pointed out that the Speaker had no power to drive or shape the reforms. She spoke of being a facilitator, the only feasible function of a Speaker. Sir George Young proposed modest reforms such as more topical debates and shorter, snappier speeches. This was not because he and other candidates believed such minor changes would revive parliamentary democracy. They were being realistic about the scope of the Speaker's role.

John Bercow was the most evangelical about the need for reform, but he knows the power to introduce change is not in the Speaker's hands alone. Party leaders, rather than the politically neutered Speaker, will decide whether to innovate. This was a contest of the neutered, never as important as those that are based on a partisan battle of ideas.

So we have to look elsewhere for a sense of what will happen next. In a curious way what emerged from the election is an apparent consensus that the Commons needs to be more robust in holding the executive to account. David Cameron made this a theme during his recent lecture on reform at the Open University. Gordon Brown claimed an attachment to the principle when announcing a package of reforms after the expenses' saga.

The response is odd in the sense that it will not be up to the new Speaker to empower the Commons. It will be up to the Government. Intimidated by the obstacles in front of them – from the media to a sometimes sclerotic civil service – Prime Ministers tend to be reluctant to make the Commons another block on their power.

The key event in the short term therefore will not be yesterday's election, but the verdict of a special committee established to propose changes. Gordon Brown has appointed a reformer, Tony Wright, to chair the committee, which is expected to report in the autumn. Brown only appoints reformers to chair a review when he is willing to contemplate reform. If the Government responds quickly to Wright's proposals and implements its recommendations there will be some significant change.

Indeed the immediate future is fairly clear. Expenses will be externally regulated. Voters who have enjoyed getting angry about expenses in recent weeks will not get the chance again. Probably the Commons will become slightly more independent and assertive. But recently I have started to wonder whether the political and media culture demands a more radical response even than electoral reform, admittedly an important change that would prevent governments from winning landslides that enable them to ignore the Commons.

Looking back at the past few weeks the focus has been on two issues: the leadership of Gordon Brown and the weaknesses of Parliament. More than ever the focus in Britain is on the leaders of the parties rather than the parties themselves. This is quite a leap.

In the 1970s the likes of Healey, Benn, Crosland, Foot, Jenkins, Owen and Williams commanded almost as much attention as Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. Margaret Thatcher was more presidential than her Labour predecessors, but even so was surrounded by heavyweights who could hold their own.

The Blair era marked a further step towards a focus on a single leader, with Gordon Brown the only other figure wielding significant power. The current focus on David Cameron, rather than his party, suggests that the trend will continue if the Conservatives win the next election.

And yet Prime Ministers are not presidents. The reality was brought home to Blair when he was visited by President Jospin during his first term. Blair introduced Jospin to his economics adviser. The then French President asked the British Prime Minister where the rest of his economics team was based. Blair explained that the single adviser was his economics team. Jospin was amazed. Yet Blair did not create a bigger Prime Minister's department out of fear that he would be attacked by the media for being presidential, even though we in the media portray leaders as if they are presidents. British leaders are seen as presidential but have the resources of a parish council leader.

Some will argue that Thatcher and Blair were bad enough with Prime Ministerial powers and dread to think what they would have been like as presidents. The answer is that both would have had a lot less power because Parliament would have held them to account more independently.

Part of the problem with the fashion for a stronger Commons is that those from the governing party are linked directly to the government. Too often loyalty or hunger for promotion overrides other considerations. A separation between executive and legislature would embolden MPs and allow prime ministers to become presidential rather than pretending to be presidents.

A few years ago the Labour MP and ardent constitutional reformer, Graham Allen, put forward a proposal for a presidential system in Britain. I thought at the time he was living in a fantasy world, but we are almost there in terms of our preoccupation with leaders, the decline of parties and the growing demand for Prime Ministers to be held to account. Of course it will not happen. Constitutional reform moves slowly in Britain if it moves at all. Yesterday's contest marked a cathartic break from the immediate past, but will have only limited impact on what will probably be a too cautious future.

independent.co.uk/steve-richards

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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