Where will Blair find the critics in this Parliament?

The Tory party is not ready to cohere into an effective opposition, but every government needs good oppositions to make it better
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The Independent Online
How do we take the Tory leadership contest seriously? Kenneth Clarke, substantially the best qualified candidate for the post, is assumed, perhaps a shade too glibly, to be a certain also-ran. The right-wing faction of the party (compare and contrast Gordon Brown/Tony Blair after the death of John Smith) is itself so split that it has not one but four candidates. Ann Widdecombe, a supporter of Peter Lilley, adds a pleasurable frisson of horror to this heady mix. After working closely with Michael Howard for several years, she has "told friends" (a classic formula for authorised but deniable knifework) that he is "dangerous stuff" and that there is "something of the night" about him. And after all it's only days since William Hague had quaffed champagne - after sundown of course - with the nocturnal Howard and emerged his trusted running mate; it wasn't until day dawned and the potion wore off, that he came to his senses and decided to stand himself. On just what platform isn't yet fully apparent.

Why do any of these antics matter? Because it isn't clear - on the showing so far - that the Tory party is anything like ready to cohere into an effective opposition. Or even that it will emerge from the leadership contest purged by the kind of great intellectual struggle which would give it the unity and sense of purpose it shed in government. That matters because even the best of governments need good oppositions to make them better.

Sometimes this can work in surprising ways. In the late 1980s I can remember a very senior Home Office official complaining that Douglas Hurd's job in improving prison provision had been made much more difficult because the Shadow Home Secretary Roy Hattersley had failed to turn up to the Commons to protest about the use of Army camps for prisoners; and a Cabinet minister wishing aloud that Robin Cook was his shadow opponent because it would make it so much easier to extract funds from the Treasury for public housing. Less surprisingly, ministers are frightened by effective opponents into behaving better than they otherwise would. The Commons may have lost a lot of its shine in the last few years; but the fear of humiliation at the dispatch box by an opposition Private Notice Question in the right hands remains a potent deterrent against skullduggery.

The dangers of an enfeebled opposition, of course, are magnified by the huge size of Tony Blair's majority. His freedom of action is almost limitless and vastly greater than that - say - of President Clinton, hemmed in by a hostile legislature. His chances of losing a single vote, let alone one of importance, during the entire Parliament are negligible. On devolution, a centrepiece of tomorrow's Queen's Speech, the Tories cannot even muster a single Scottish MP to be Donald Dewar's opposite number. The backwoods Tory peers can slow him down, as they may try to do over the ban on handguns. But in general Blair can do what he wants, in a way that the Liberal government could not after 1906. Clever, honourable men such as Tam Dalyell and Denzil Davies are uncowable and may be at least as dangerous on, respectively, devolution and Europe to the executive as the traditional left. But most, if not all, full-scale backbench rebellions will be snuffed out by a combination of the massed ranks of the eager young Blairites and the party discipline for which their party has already become justly famous.

Consider also the effect on the select committees which, however imperfect, remain the main instrument of parliamentary scrutiny. These will now have on them a majority of pro-government MPs as large, proportionally, as that in the Commons itself. So too will the standing committees that are supposed to subject bills to detailed examination but have lamentably failed to do so over the past 18 years.

So there are real dangers, but also, perhaps, some solutions too. The first is the historically large presence of 46 Liberal Democrats. In a speech to his new MPs last week, Ashdown pledged "constructive" rather than "knee-jerk" opposition. From Scotland, where they have the biggest single number of MPs, the party is already jostling with the Commons authorities to be treated as the official Opposition on Scottish business. And Liberal Democrats have the potential to harry the government not only on electoral reform - though they will if there is backsliding on the referendum pledge - but also on the issues that most concern many Labour MPs, including education, health and civil rights.

Another solution is parliamentary, and governmental, reform. Incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into British law suggests that Blair is ready for the judges to impose limits on his own power. But is he also prepared for an extension of select committees, the real use of backbenchers to help formulate government policy, and a culture of sensitivity to intelligent parliamentary criticism? This would go a long way to check the danger of the government making the kind of arrogant errors that will cost it dear at the polling booths next time. So would the use of standing committees for the purpose they were intended - partly by being given a pre-legislative role and the right to call expert witnesses - rather than as mere engines of party hackery. And if it's true, as it seems to be, that a Freedom of Information Bill was partly omitted from Wednesday's speech because David Clark missed a train and turned up late to the crucial Cabinet meeting, then it should return next year in the wake of the promised White Paper.

The omission of Tony Wright and Giles Radice, two MPs who have thought deeply about these subjects, from the ministerial ranks, is a disappointment. But the expected appointment of Wright as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Irvine, who has a key Cabinet responsibility for constitutional reform, is a better omen. And Radice's power to oversee the Whitehall machine as chairman of the Public Services Committee, if he continues in that post, could be extensive.

If safety valves of dissent are not built anew into the system, then the vital task of opposition will be left to other more volatile and less democratic theatres of conflict: the unions, the streets, perhaps above all the press. But Blair is single-minded about implementing what he sees as the popular will expressed on May 1, and the last six years don't exactly make a case for loose or weak government. There is a balance to be struck, and modernising Parliament would help him strike it.