MPs need cutting down to size: Leading article

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It has been a long time since our ancient democracy had a lesson to learn from Spain's recently revived version, but that day has come. Jose Maria Aznar, the country's new Prime Minister, has started with the kind of downsizing that many a corporate high-flier would be proud to emblazon on his fuselage. Indeed, Senor Aznar has started at the very top - by downsizing his cabinet to a mere 14 members.

Britain's cabinet has 22 members, all of whom sit down once a week around that grand table in Number 10, or more often in a crisis. Many serve an obvious purpose - Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, etc. But most of the others are really like the tail end of an international football squad, only really needed when the injury list grows too long. In reality, fewer than 10 cabinet ministers actually make the big decisions - often as few as half a dozen.

And that team is bolstered by a further 46 ministers of state, mini-ministers and the like, all of whom inhabit tidy little burrows in the Whitehall warren. Over the past decade or so, those ministers have done much to cut down the bureaucrats who serve them, hiving some off into arm's-length agencies and cutting others out altogether. But has the number of ministers gone down in similar proportion? Not a bit.

The truth is, most of the smaller Whitehall bag-carriers have very little to do, apart from flatter and favour their departmental boss in the hope of subsequent advancement. Supposedly, they are in training, or under trial, for one of the big jobs. In reality, however, many of them are having their support bought in return for the odd trip in a ministerial car, and the dubious glamour and kudos of belonging to HMG. Every vote that the Prime Minister manages to lock up on his front benches, and in the whip's office, the fewer he has to worry about keeping on side when things get tough.

It seems like a persuasive argument, until you consider the old advice given by one junior minister to those who followed him, to the effect that there were only two reasons for being a junior minister: one was to give you a handhold on the greasy pole; the other was to find a good excuse to resign spectacularly, and so make your name for the next government.

So there is precious little case for having so many ministers, apart from the fact that you need a good proportion of your side in the Government. Well, there is an easy answer to that: cut the number of MPs. Here is a classic case of modern streamlining. Cut the executive layer and you may soon find you do not need so many down below. We could live with, say, 400 to 500 MPs (against the present 650) and still have plenty of voices in Parliament. And there is an incentive: we may even be able to afford to pay and staff MPs' offices better if we have fewer of them. It is time Parliament started cutting itself down to size.