Let us have a look at the mythology of the report, as set down in our great broadsheet newspapers, in both their news and, with the exception of the Daily Telegraph, their editorial columns. According to this account, Lord Nolan publishes a report recommending various conditions under which MPs should do their work, notably that they should be prohibited from being employed by multi-client agencies and that their remuneration from single agencies should be disclosed. The Government accepts these recommendations, among others.
There is then a reversal or, at least, a modification of the Government's position. It is variously attributed to the Tory Right and to the parliamentary party generally. It is said to occur in the week before last Thursday's debate or, alternatively, during the debate itself. No matter. The Government is in retreat. Mr Major is on the run once again. Mr David Hunt, the minister who seems to be responsible for these matters, contents himself with announcing the formation of a small Commons committee to consider what to do next.
This story contains elements of truth. Myths usually do. No one who was in the House last Thursday could have described it as an edifying or improving occasion. But then, the House is not there to edify or improve. "The House of Commons was at its best yesterday . . ." is an invention of the parliamentary sketch-writers, in particular the late Harry Boardman of the Guardian. The greed on display, the self-interest, the half-witted interruptions and the estimation of everything in party terms may have shocked some observers. Others will not have been at all surprised. But feelings of disgust need not deprive us of the capacity for rational judgement or the ability to give an account of what happened.
When Lord Nolan's recommendations began to leak out, it was generally predicted that the Government would reject them out of hand. When they were published, most people were surprised that the Government welcomed them. But the welcome was general and cautious. How could it have been anything else? In the event, Mr Hunt has unequivocally accepted those two recommendations which the Government is free to carry out on its own: putting ministers on the same footing as civil servants when they want to move to the private sector, and setting up a supervisory authority to prevent or, at any rate, to inhibit political appointments to quangos. On the recommendations concerning MPs, Mr Hunt leaves it to the members themselves. What could be more reasonable than that?
But for Mr Tony Blair, Mrs Ann Taylor and Mr Paddy Ashdown it is not good enough. It is to play for time or (the metaphors vary) to kick the ball into touch or into the long grass. I have long urged politicians to avoid figures of speech derived from sport, but it seems to do no good. Anyway, they cry with Winston Churchill: Action this day! They want Nolan, the whole of Nolan and nothing but Nolan, and they want it now.
There are several objections to the course urged by the Labour and Liberal leaders. Action taken in haste usually proves difficult to undo. One example is the establishment of the Child Support Agency, which was warmly approved by all parties but never properly considered. Another is Mr Kenneth Baker's Dangerous Dogs Act, which is cruel, unnecessary and of benefit to the lawyers only. Indeed, there has grown up a specialised branch of the Criminal Bar which is concerned solely with imperilled dogs. This Dogs Bar is comparable to, say, the Tax Bar.
A more fundamental objection is that Mr Blair, Mrs Taylor and Mr Ashdown want the Government or, in practice, the Whips Office to act as a bully over something which, in default of a statute, is a Commons matter: in much the same way as the Speaker was "elected" until the system broke down to allow the splendid Miss Betty Boothroyd through the gap.
Labour and the Liberals are playing politics. They are doing so because the taking of consultancies is overwhelmingly a Conservative habit and is increasingly a Conservative problem. The journalist who first drew attention to the practice was Mr Ian Waller of the Sunday Telegraph in the early 1960s. The reason lies in social changes within the Conservative Party and in economic changes within society. Fifty or so years ago Sir Jerry Wiggin would not have had to demean himself by attending to the needs of the caravan population - still less by putting down amendments in another member's name without asking him first.
Numerous Mr Worldly Wisemen (and Mrs Wisewomen) among our legislators have been saying that this practice is perfectly all right - indeed, common form - provided the permission of the member whose name is being taken in vain is obtained. Well, I have been hanging around Westminster for 35 years. It is the first I have heard of the practice. In the days when El Vino's in Fleet Street shut at three, and I felt in need of a digestif shortly afterwards, I would go to the nearby Wig and Pen Club, of which I was not a member, and sign myself in as "Alastair Hetherington". He was not a member either, as far as I was aware, but no one made further inquiries. Everyone seemed satisfied.
Sir Jerry's case, unlike mine, will almost certainly go to the Committee of Privileges, which is the right place for it. Likewise, the committee which Mr Hunt has promised might as well be a sub-committee of that same Privileges Committee. After all, Lord Nolan envisages a substantial role for such a body, more important even than that of the Ethics Man, as Mr Tony Benn calls the civilian controller proposed by the learned judge.
Mr Benn wants the activities of members to be regulated not by the House but by an Act. So does Mr Nicholas Budgen. Mr Major and Mr Hunt are at one with the Labour and Liberal leaders in preferring self-regulation to statute. In this they are probably expressing the majority view of the House. This does not mean they are right. On the contrary: it is almost certainly conclusive evidence they are wrong.
I read somewhere that alliances of Left and Right, such as Mr Benn and Mr Budgen now enjoy, should arouse suspicion. But in my experience they have often been proved right, more right than the soggy centre: as over Lords reform in 1968-9 and the true meaning of the European Communities Act 1972. MPs can already be disqualified by statute, notably for bankruptcy. Alas! There will be no Act. And though, in the absence of one, Mr Major is taking the correct course, he will still be blamed whatever happens. That is now the Prime Minister's fate.Reuse content