Tory backbenchers need help or at least new caterers

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RE-READING Richard Crossman's Backbench Diaries the other day, I came on an entry for 25 August 1959 in which he and Bob Boothby "agreed about the decline in the quality of the Commons". Crossman "mentioned that [Hugh] Gaitskell had said he would be able, just but only just, to select a cabinet". Boothby then proceeded to quote his mistress, Lady Dorothy Macmillan, who was herself quoting her husband Harold, the prime minister: "You have no idea how the quality of the Conservative Party will decline in the next Parliament, whatever happens. I shall only just be able to put a cabinet together if we win."

One way of looking at this is to say that there is nothing new under the sun; another, to acknowledge that there has indeed been a parliamentary decline since 1959, but that recently it has become more precipitate. It was, in short, ever thus, but in the last year or so it has been even thusser. Certainly the chief characteristic of the past session of Parliament has been the decline in reputation of the House of Commons.

Measured by the personal behaviour of many Conservatives, including some ministers, this popular estimate is perfectly fair. It is humbug to maintain, as defenders of the party's practices have done, that the continuing existence of the "professional classes" somehow depends on members being able to accept unsavoury consultancies of one kind or another. The argument is itself a contradiction in terms. For anyone who could accept or even hanker after such sordid arrangements would by definition be outside the professional classes.

The distinguishing characteristic of the Conservative Party today is its absence of shame. I blame Lady Thatcher myself, an honest woman financially, even if she has become a little too fond of fat fees in her old age for her own good. History is full of such paradoxes.

But I do not want to place all or most of the blame on one politician, on the Conservative political culture of the past 20 years or so or even on original sin. The requirements of the party lead its parliamentary representatives into wickedness as inexorably as would their situation if they were living on a drug-infested council estate. They are compelled to maintain a style of life which cannot be financed by their parliamentary salaries - or by their modest earning capacities in legitimate fields of endeavour.

In 1948 David Maxwell Fyfe (later Lord Kilmuir), performed his greatest and perhaps his only service to the Tories through an internal report. This reorganised the party's finances so that Conservatives without personal wealth, such as Iain Macleod, Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell, could become candidates. Today the party clearly needs a new Maxwell Fyfe report.

Is it necessary, for example, that a member should have to maintain a home in the constituency? Is it necessary or even desirable that his wife should be expected to fulfil any duties at all? In the People's Party wives are, quite rightly, treated with what the late George Brown once called a complete ignoral; unless, of course, they positively wish to involve themselves in political concerns. In the Conservative Party, women members' husbands are treated as Labour members' wives are. Indeed, they occupy what is, if anything, an even more inconspicuous position.

And why should Conservative members and their wives alone be expected to serve undrinkable wines, cubes of pineapple-and-cheddar cheese that no one wants to eat, and little things on bits of toast that look as if they had died a nasty death? Maxwell Fyfe went to a better place long ago. But surely the new chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney - one of the few modern Conservatives who look as if they know what time of day it is, let alone what they are supposed to be about - can do something, even if it is only to contract the service out to the Publishers Association.

There is another side to the low regard in which MPs are now held. They are, it is said, not only venal but subservient. Indeed, their supposed subservience is held to be a consequence of their venality: for they obey the Whips to secure the delights of office. In fact the two charges are quite separate, though they are often made together in an attempt to mount a more convincing case. Greed is one thing; obedience to the party managers something else. Or, as the judge said when a soldier returned from the war to find his wife in bed with another man, whom he promptly shot: "A man and woman in bed together is one thing, but a Sten gun firing bullets in rapid succession is another matter entirely."

Just so. And, as acquisitiveness has increased, so has the independence of the backbenchers. Forty years ago it was virtually unknown for a government to be defeated in the House. The textbooks could come up with only two illustrations: one on tied cottages, the other on equal pay for teachers. Since 1965 the average sessional numbers of government defeats have increased. So also have the proportions of those defeats accepted by the government. The increases have not been uniform. In some years they are up, in others down. But the general trend is clear. I take 1965 as the starting point because that was the year in which Lord Callaghan's Finance Bill suffered amendments which were, however, accepted. A decade later another Labour Chancellor, Lord Healey, accepted amendments from Mr Jeff Rooker and Mrs Audrey Wise which for a time, as "Rooker-Wise", became part of Treasury vocabulary. So I could go on, but it would be tedious to do so, especially in August.

There have, of course, been terrible examples the other way, particularly under Lady Thatcher. One was the abolition of the GLC, an act of political vindictiveness which was arguably unconstitutional. Another was the War Crimes Bill, which was passed after the House of Lords had been overruled through the unprecedented invocation of the Parliament Act, and because the Bill enjoyed the support of Lady Thatcher. As one would expect, rebellious backbenchers have been most successful when the government has possessed a small majority or none at all, in 1964-66, 1976-79 - or today.

The standard liberal cant has two aspects. They are contradictory. On the one hand, it laments that backbenchers have little power. But when, on the other hand, they choose to exercise that power, it proceeds to condemn them because they are an "unrepresentative minority" who are "behaving irresponsibly" and "reducing the House of Commons to a shambles". This confusion of mind was particularly evident during the passing of the Maastricht Bill. For my part, I am not only clear but happy that in Parliament governments can usually be defeated only through an unrepresentative minority. I shall be spending part of the holiday investigating the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy on south-west France, and will (DV) be back for the Liberal Democrat conference.