It's all going beautifully, but where's the opposition?

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
Even old lags such as myself, with many previous convictions - most of them, alas, disappointed - go down to Westminster these days more often and with more spring in our step. Though a warm and sunny April has turned into a cold and dull May, the climate of politics has changed utterly and for the better.

In one respect, however, the new lot are not very different from the old. Like their predecessors, they do not hang about the chamber actually listening to debates, still less taking part in them. At 4.30 last Thursday, for instance, with Mr Peter Lilley speaking in the debate on the Queen's Speech, there were 34 Labour members present. Admittedly this is not too bad a turn-out by the standards of the past. But out of a total of 418, it is not a high proportion, just over 8 per cent.

No doubt they had better things to do with their time; or they thought they had. To begin with, it must be very confusing. One new member was, with her colleagues, thoughtfully presented with a video purporting to show how the place worked. She would have preferred a map instead. Anyway she does not possess a video machine.

In another respect also there has been a reversion to old ways. The traditional Labour doctrine that it is the sole or, at any rate, the principal function of backbenchers to sustain a Labour government has been reasserted. Mr Peter Mandelson himself has said it, echoing his grandfather Herbert Morrison, who declared: "Socialism is what a Labour government does." The only difference now is that neither Mr Mandelson nor Mr Tony Blair would allow the dreadful word to cross his lips, though it does put in a fugitive appearance in the document which preceded the manifesto and looked even more like a building society brochure.

Mr Blair thinks it is the function of the Government to implement the manifesto and of the backbenchers to support the Government in the lobbies. What is happening before our eyes is what I predicted. The Government, held aloft by the brute force of a huge majority, thinks it can do more or less as it likes; just as Lady Thatcher did in the 1980s.

True, the Queen's Speech still promises to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into our law, but qualifies this by saying that the "main provisions" will be incorporated. I wonder which they can be. I am prepared to bet also that the Act dealing with all this will contain some ringing pronouncement on the sovereignty of Parliament, in reality of a House of Commons obediently doing a minister's bidding. Last week provided two illustrations of Mr Blair's allegedly dictatorial tendencies.

The first was the proposal for Prime Minister's Questions to be cut from two sessions to one, to be held on a Wednesday; for the occasion to last half rather than a quarter of an hour; and for specific questions rather than the present open variety. Here my sympathies are with the Prime Minister. Indeed, I think he has been traduced by people who should know better.

The precise proposal was made by him long before the election. As he was then leader of the opposition rather than prime minister, people did not pay as much attention as they should have done. Mrs Ann Taylor, the present Leader of the House, followed Mr Blair's suggestions in a speech in May 1996. She did, however, say that "the reform of Question Time is not for a government to decide but would be high on my list". Still, if Mr Blair had gone in for that consultation which some Conservatives (previously not known for their enthusiasm for the activity) are now demanding, he would not have arrived anywhere till the millennium.

It is not quite true, as Mr Mandelson asserted on television just after the Queen's Speech, that the House's Procedure Committee had already approved Mr Blair's ideas. The committee broadly approved the transformation of open into specific questions (which was what they used to be when the occasion was inaugurated, as recently as 1961). But it left a firm decision for the future, both on this and on other matters. And in this uncertain state they would have remained if Mr Blair had not taken decisive action.

The so-called windfall tax on the privatised utilities provides the second illustration of Mr Blair's supposed tendencies. It is superficially quite different from the change to Prime Minister's Questions. It was well-advertised in advance. It aroused much interest, not least because it was to do with money, lots and lots of the stuff. Above all, it could be challenged in the courts, as changes in parliamentary procedure cannot be, not even in our new era of rampant judicial interventionism.

People seem unaccountably surprised that British Telecom is threatening to avail itself of its undoubted right to mount a legal challenge. These "sources close to the Chancellor" have "voiced astonishment" that "some people do not seem to have understood the result of the election". Why, they sound just like Margaret Thatcher after 1983 - or perhaps Adolf Hitler after 1933.

I discussed these matters with sources close to the then Shadow Chancellor not long before 1 May and told them I thought a legal challenge likely. In the phrase often used by Hannen Swaffer of the People: "I told them, but they wouldn't listen." This is not to predict success in the courts either for BT or for any other concern which refuses to take Mr Gordon Brown's opportunist, unprincipled and discriminatory tax without some protest. It is merely to point out that they can all cause a lot of trouble. They will be wholly justified in so doing. Nor should we neglect the possibility of a parliamentary challenge on account of the arguable hybridity of Mr Brown's measure. It may well partake of this awkward quality because it affects private (that is, individual shareholders') rights.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown are as annoyed as they evidently are because they have been snuggling up to BT for a long time. They feel the pique of lovers at the rejection of their advances. In fact Mr Blair had persuaded the company to make the country even more innumerate and illiterate than it is already by installing free computers in every school in the land. This seems to be contrary to Mr David Blunkett's new policy of diminishing the use of computers in schools. But no matter.

We shall now hear a good deal of claptrap about greedy privatised companies (of which Mr Blair had previously told us he approved) callously preventing young people from being put back to work. But the handouts which Mr Brown promises to disburse to this end are by no means guaranteed to secure it. Besides, hypothecation - the allocation of a tax to a specific object - is dubious in theory and in practice. The fate of the Road Fund Licence, which was originally intended to benefit the roads and now goes into the great Treasury maw, is a demonstration.

To all objections, ministers fall back on the size of the Government's majority. After 1959, when Harold Macmillan won a majority of 100, Iain Macleod said the Conservatives would have to provide their own opposition. Labour backbenchers seem disinclined to adopt this function. So the old lags who write for the papers will clearly have to do it instead.

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