Dishing out gongs to politicians is intrinsically no more absurd than dishing them out to actors, novelists or journalists. As Lord Melbourne said of the Garter, there is no damned merit in it. This year, however, I thought that by chance four of the lucky recipients demonstrated different truths about the present state of politics.
Dr Mo Mowlam, who handed out the awards, showed why, for all its inconsistencies, Mr Tony Blair's government remained popular. Mr Gordon Brown, who was Parliamentarian of the Year, showed what a formidable politician he was. Mr Bob Marshall-Andrews, who was made New Member to Watch, showed why the Government might not be given such an easy time by its backbenchers as had at first been supposed. And Mr John Redwood, who was given the title Questioner of the Year, showed why his party was in its present trouble. I take the political morals pointed by these individuals in reverse order.
Mr Redwood was awarded his medal for his questioning of Mrs Margaret Beckett over the shareholdings retained by Lord Simon of Highbury. Everyone has forgotten this episode now, which only goes to show how short political memories are. What happened was that the new minister in charge of European competition hung on to some shares of which, according to the official guidance to ministers, he clearly ought to have divested himself.
Mrs Beckett stonewalled, Mr Blair blustered but, in the end, Mr Redwood, through persistence - and, it may be added, the support of most of the press - compelled Mrs Beckett to open up, Mr Blair to change tack and Lord Simon to do the decent thing. It was a clear victory for which Mr Redwood was entitled to take most of the credit.
In victory one should, as Winston Churchill once advised, show magnanimity. This was the quality which was signally lacking from Mr Redwood's short speech of acceptance last Wednesday. He applied the heavy hand rather than the light touch. He might not have been at a convivial occasion, taken less than seriously by most of those attending it, but at the Southwark Crown Court, sending Mrs Beckett down for fraud. I see no prospect of improvement in Mr Redwood, however well he may be coached by his Svengali from the Welsh Office, Mr Hywel Williams. He is fated to remain without much sense of humour. It is his nature. That would not matter, except to Mr and possibly Mrs Redwood. But there are now scores of Redwoods on the Tory benches.
The contrast with Mr Marshall-Andrews could hardly have been greater. He was funny, he was self-deprecating and he can speak. When I told him afterwards that he sounded like someone out of the 1950s, I intended it as a compliment. As his citation noted, he practises the Old Labour trade of Queen's Counsel. In the past this occupation has produced some notably awkward customers such as Geoffrey Bing, R T Paget, John Platts-Mills and D N Pritt.
None of them became a Law Officer. All were eminently qualified to do so professionally, though three of them were fellow travellers politically. With the collapse of Communism, that category is now extinct. I do not think Mr Marshall-Andrews would have belonged to it. Nevertheless he is clearly as awkward as they were, though nicer personally. He sits for Medway, which he won with a 15 per cent swing. Accordingly he is one of those members who did not really expect to get into Parliament at all.
This can produce odd effects on people. There is one reported case of a new Labour member who went to the Whips asking how the voters' decision could be reversed. The brisk answer was that it could not be. In these circumstances, several approaches are possible to the years ahead. The new member can sink into torpor; support the Government enthusiastically or sycophantically in the hope of obtaining preferment; or join the awkward squad. Mr Marshall-Andrews has clearly made the last choice.
There are two good general reasons for taking this course. One is that, if you are likely to be out of the House in four or five years and back more or less where you started, there is not much point in being a good boy or girl. You might as well enjoy yourself by being not bad exactly but, let us say, of independent mind. The other reason is that, out of 418 MPs, you are unlikely to be one of those to hit the bullseye, so winning a China shepherdess, a cut-glass sugar bowl and an Under Secretaryship at the Department of the Environment.
This is what Francis Pym had in mind when he said on television before the 1983 election that he did not want a landslide victory and that a majority of 40 was about right. Margaret Thatcher was so cross that she gave him the sack afterwards. On the evidence of last week, the members who have decided to emulate Mr Marshall-Andrews now run into three figures. They have shown this over tobacco advertising, over pit closures, over the removal of benefits from single parents and over the possibility that the income of married women will be subsumed under the income of the household, so increasing the incidence of taxation upon the former.
It was the 19th-century statesman George Canning who laid down that the function of the backbencher was "to cheer the minister". This is what the members behind him did to Mr Brown, though the mood changed later in the week. On Tuesday they were more easily pleased. All the Chancellor had firmly promised was a solitary payment of twenty measly pounds for old age pensioners. Mr Brown, formidable though he is, has also been lucky. The confusion over the single currency has been forgotten. The fiasco over Mr Bernie Ecclestone's munificence to the People's Party was nothing to do with him.
Nor is the reform of the Welfare State his responsibility. It is partly that of Ms Harriet Harman, partly of Mr Frank Field. This whole discussion has been confused by muddling, on the one hand, the assimilation of the tax and benefits systems with, on the other, the introduction of compulsory private insurance, whether of pensions, healthcare or both. The two changes are quite distinct. The adjustment of taxes and benefits in one system has been talked of for as long as I can remember. There is nothing new about it. Compulsory private insurance, by contrast, has come into fashion in the last decade. In health, at any rate, insurance leads to fraud and waste, because someone else - the insurance company - is paying.
Mr Brown has so far managed to keep out of these complicated disputes, which require the combined gifts of a Chancery judge and a chartered accountant. This may be as much a matter of political skill as of good luck. For the moment, everybody trusts him; just as everybody likes Dr Mowlam. I cannot see this happy state of affairs for the Government lasting for ever.Reuse content