It has been a difficult few days for those who still cling to a belief in the probity of Parliament.
Even before the full details of Patrick Mercer’s allegedly inappropriate lobbying activities in the House of Commons emerged, a second, separate newspaper sting operation revealed no fewer than three different Lords – Laird, Mackenzie and Cunningham – also apparently willing to hawk their influence for cash.
All those accused deny any wrongdoing. But the reports of parliamentary questions asked, of high-level introductions promised, and of large sums of money changing hands are wearyingly familiar, nonetheless. And they only add to the sense that the venality exposed by the Cash for Questions affair, the expenses scandal, and any number of newspaper exposés since remains rampant.
The need for sweeping changes in the rules on lobbying is clear. But the implications of the latest round of disclosures do not end there. They also put reform of the bloated and debased House of Lords firmly back on the agenda.
First, lobbying. There is ample justification for interested parties, commercial or political, to seek the ear of the powerful. Their perspectives may refine and improve government policy. What is wholly unacceptable, however, is that such lobbying should take place in secret, and – worse – it should be bought and sold.
In opposition, David Cameron warned righteously of the “far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money”. In power, though, he has dragged his feet. There can be no more excuses. Only an outright ban on paid advocacy, a mandatory register of lobbyists, a statutory code of conduct, and a legal requirement for all meetings with lobbyists to be registered can excise the canker.
But even toughening up the rules and – finally – ensuring that they are enforced will not get to the root of the problems in the House of Lords. After all, the very composition of the chamber – with 90 hereditary members and the majority of the rest government appointees – is founded on the notion of patronage and cronyism. Taken together with the absence of any official salary and the impossibility of dismissal (of which Lord Archer is, perhaps, the stellar example), is it any wonder that the blandishments of lobbyists prove so attractive?
Nor is the Upper House a mere rubber stamp, a contributor to the national debate but little more. As the Labour peer Lord Alli makes clear in an interview in this newspaper today, were his counterparts to vote down the Government’s gay marriage legislation tomorrow – a very real possibility – it would leave the Prime Minister few options to revive the Bill despite its provisions being supported by both a majority of the public and of elected MPs. A “constitutional crisis”, indeed.
Such anomalies must be remedied, and fast. That even a sliver of power rests in the hands of the unelected is stain enough on our supposed democracy. That it is further sullied by the rot of peddled influence and contacts-for-hire only adds insult to the injury. Liberal Democrat-proposed reforms were wrecked by Tory opposition last year. It is now clearer than ever that we cannot wait another generation for them to be revived.
The latest revelations are, in the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry, a welcome reminder of the value of an unfettered media. They should also be a stark lesson to the political class of how much ground must be made up if the anti-politics, protest votes being scooped up by Ukip are to be persuaded back to the mainstream. If public confidence in Parliament is to be restored, it is time for radical reform.