Some of us hoped that a hung parliament would give the Commons some oomph. But sadly not

A Political Life: On how, under the Coalition, view expressed in the House don't seem to matter; and what else is David Cameron hiding from Leveson?

Chris Bryant
Friday 26 October 2012 17:55

You may not have come across the minister for the Armed Forces, Andrew Robathan. As he is by far the least impressive of the Defence team, many had predicted that he would be sacked in the latest reshuffle. His role in David Cameron’s election as party leader continues to pay dividends, though, which is a delight for us because he has a regular habit of letting the cat out of the bag.

Last year, he compared the idea of a medal for those involved in the dangerous Arctic convoys with the medal-givings of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi. And this week he’s faced criticism for his behaviour in last Thursday’s debate on the disbanding of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, during which it is alleged that he demanded that the Speaker remove some of the retired members of the regiment from the gallery.

In denying all this, in defence questions on Monday, Robathan came up with a new doctrine. Admitting that he was then the only person in the House to speak in support of the Government’s position, he declared that it is not “the House’s intention for a vote in such a debate to be binding upon the Government”. Well, how convenient is that, then? After all, in the past year the Government’s declared position has been directly contradicted by House of Commons votes or unanimous resolutions on circus animals and on visas for the murderers of Sergei Magnitsky, and this week the House voted 147 votes to 28 to oppose any badger cull (which the Government had already abandoned for this year but is suggesting might happen next year).

As in the Fusiliers debate, the government minister did not even vote on the cull, yet both votes were conclusive (57 to three last week), and when the Brown government lost a motion on the Gurkhas we changed tack the next day. Some of us had hoped that in a hung parliament the openly expressed views of the Commons might actually matter. Apparently not.

David Cameron is on the run

A brief update on textgate. Last Wednesday, in a grand old hissy fit, the Prime Minister refused to answer my question about the secret texts and emails between him and Rebekah Brooks, and Andy Coulson (as revealed in this paper). Last Friday, he replied to written questions from me by childishly referring me to a letter to Harriet Harman. This Wednesday, he gave my colleague Rob Flello exactly the same answer that he has given to The Independent, namely that he has provided the Leveson Inquiry with everything requested. And yesterday he answered my five detailed written questions with a reference to his stonewall non-answer to Rob.

With every evasion, it is becoming clearer that Cameron is hiding something. I’m told that the stash of material includes 130 to 150 texts and emails, which would suggest that neither Leveson nor we have seen the full picture of his relationship with Brooks. Next step: the Information Commissioner.

Rhondda: not like Washington

British politics is run on a shoestring. Unlike America, where every politician devotes at least two days each week to fundraising, it’s only an occasional necessity here and the numbers are far smaller, thanks to the fact that we don’t allow paid political television advertising. We don’t have to scale the heights of the US elections, which this year look set to spend $6bn. Yet despite the view that party politics is a semi-criminal activity, leaflets don’t print themselves.

In the case of the Rhondda Labour Party we are hoping to launch a new Rhondda Labour parliamentary apprenticeship scheme this year, to give at least two youngsters a start each year. We had a fundraising dinner on Wednesday, and thanks to the generosity of Hugh Grant, Sir Ian McKellen, Frances Barber and my mate Jason, we also raised £5,000 for the family of Karina Menzies who was killed in the Cardiff hit-and-run tragedy.

Our speaker, Andy Burnham, told of his leadership campaign in 2010. Two weeks before the close of poll, his 10-year-old son came to him looking very serious. “Dad, about your election, I’ve been looking at some websites and they all say a Miliband is going to win.” Andy pleaded with him: “Come on, lad, keep the faith. Don’t give up on me yet.” Ten days later came the final Burnham rally in Manchester. A local reporter thrust a camera in Andy’s son’s face. “So, is your daddy going to win?” There was a hideous pause as the poor lad looked at his father and back at the reporter. Caught between the truth and filial duty, he answered, “Maybe”, with a rising hint of uncertainty.

The perils of legal advice on Scotland

Leaving aside the question of whether Alex Salmond engaged in a bare-faced lie when he suggested that he had legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland in the EU (which he doubtless denies), I’m fascinated that he still has no such advice.

I commissioned some when I was Europe minister, and it made clear that an independent Scotland would have to join the slow queue for membership and that, in common with all applicant members, it would also have to put itself on course to join the euro and would have to adopt open borders within the Schengen zone. Since the rest of the UK would not be signing up to Schengen, this would mean border controls between Scotland and the other home nations.

This all made the front page of the Scotsman on Sunday in the week after my wedding in March 2010, when Jared and I were on our very brief pre-election honeymoon in Edinburgh. Bizarrely, the only photo the paper could find of me was one from the wedding – and they cropped me out of it, leaving Jared as the face of Labour’s attack on nationalism.

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