Saturday, 29 May 2010

New government: new politics?

So there I was...about to upload a commentary on the new government after an adequate time for reflection...when up shoots another political bolt from the blue to splatter all over the front pages.

No headlines proclaiming 'Rent Boy' that I've noticed yet, but the omens do not look especially good for the government's LibDem rising star, David Laws.

In my view, the most incriminating evidence revealed against him so far is perhaps the excessive utilities and maintenance bills claimed in addition to his rent. (Though charging taxpayers £950 for use of a bedroom does seem excessive even for London.) It continues to surprise how complex applying MPs expenses regulations can be. So I won't speculate on how soon, or far, Laws is going to fall.

Instead, here's my brief and generally upbeat - until yesterday - view of what I think of the new politics so far...

* * *

I have refrained for several days from commenting on the arrival of the new government.

One reason is a genuine ignorance of what was being developed within the two-party partnership. The other is awareness that first impressions are often not a reliable basis for firm opinions.

Initial impressions were that the Conservative side of government had given up philosophy and beliefs to create an alliance representing a new political party with an unknown manifesto.

David Cameron's new leadership style seemed to magnify the authoritarian nature he'd shown as opposition and campaign leader. The decisions without consultation to propose fixed term parliaments, a lock over the dissolution of parliament, and controls over the backbench 1922 Committee, suggested a ruthless intention to impose his new party over both Conservatives and the parliament.

However, a full three weeks have passed since the election. MPs have returned to parliament. We have had the Queen's speech. And most importantly, we have begun to see how the new government, through its ministers, intends to act and present its case in parliament.

I have been impressed by the natural confidence of the ministerial team. This may be a confirmation that Conservatives are indeed the natural party of government or just an awakening of our long-suppressed knowledge of how inadequate Labour ministers always were.

The shining performance of some of the LibDem team certainly reflects the latter. David Laws in the economics debate on the Queen's speech showed the metal of which he is made, even as he referenced some softer inclusions of LibDem policy. And David Heath, beardedly LibDem as he is, provided a cogent and conciliatory explanation of the 55 percent dissolution rule (as far as it has yet developed), and even made me think twice about whether it might actually be necessary.

Most of all, the Queen's speech debates this week, especially on foreign affairs and defence, showed parliament at its best. The depth and sincerity of argument from the government front and back benches, and the generosity of spirit shown to fellow parliamentarians, showed the stature that parliament is capable of when the right people are in charge. In fact, it's something I haven't witnessed for thirteen years!

There's a long way to go – and substantial disagreements between the governing partners and Conservative back and front benchers have yet to emerge – but, despite the election result, the presentation so far gives encouragement that hopes for a Conservative-style Britain look a little better than Conservatives might have hoped.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Should the Duchess of York be sacked?

On the one hand, Sarah Ferguson has been caught demanding a fee to introduce a scam businessman to her trade envoy former husband. Introduction fees are nothing remarkable. Political parties regularly raise funds by offering the presence of, and potential conversations with, influential politicians. Undoubtedly, businesses pay fees to middlepersons for access to important people, whether for an innocuous charity dinner, a networking breakfast, or a meeting on a private yacht.

An introduction is a limited commitment. In Ferguson's case, it simply requires attending a sporting event with said businessman and on Prince Andrew's arrival introducing one to the other. Job done. Fee received. If a businessman is willing to pay a vast sum for such an introduction, then Ms Ferguson might be admired for taking such businessman for all he's willing to give. After all, an introduction implies no commitment on future business relationships—and Ferguson is in no position to offer such guarantees.

On the other hand, the former husband is a significant member of the Royal family. His duties as a national trade envoy require an image of absolute integrity, not to speak of his constitutional position as a senior Royal. Ms Ferguson's money-raising exploit exposes her husband to suspicions of bias and corruption, even though he is specifically exonerated from awareness of his former wife's secretive deal. His integrity may be compromised by association—even if the association is merely that he continues to morally support his former wife.

The problem now is that this exposé—faked entrapment by newspaper though it was—not only puts Ferguson's public position in doubt, it also raises questions about the propriety and impartiality of using senior Royals as ambassadors for trade. Undoubtedly, Prince Andrew wants to be active and, even more, to benefit national prosperity in return for the state benefits he receives. And there is a long history of Royals doing such work, not least the present Prince Philip, Prince Michael and Duke of Kent. But in an age of ethical foreign policies, can an envoy of the Queen, subject neither to election nor FOI requests, ever be seen to be acting in a completely impartial manner when drumming up trade for British businesses?

Leaving that question open, Ms Ferguson's compulsion for embarrassing the Royal family ought to be closed. Perhaps a decent family pension and compulsory retirement would help.

Friday, 14 May 2010

The 55 percent rule

My curiosity lies in discovering who inspired this curious piece of potential legislation.

My political bias suggests the naivety and apparent unworkability of the 55% rule places it squarely as a Liberal Democrat concoction. But who knows? In true consensual coalition form, it seems intended to provide equal protection to both parties from a presumptive dissolution of parliament.

Many observers have declared that an artificial bar to parliament being subject to re-election, after a majority of MPs have voted a lack of confidence in the government, is simply unconstitutional.

More to the point, as Christopher Chope MP has pointed out, the 55% rule is unworkable and therefore meaningless.

If the situation arose that either governing party pulled out of the coalition, a minority Conservative government would be unable to resist the subsequent majority overturning the 55% rule. This would then enable a vote of confidence to defeat the government causing immediate dissolution of parliament and a new general election.

If Cameron and Clegg choose to resist objections and force this new rule through parliament, they may believe its very existence will act as resistance to ever testing its principles in practice.

However, starting a new era of political reform with legislation regarded as both unconstitutional and unworkable is not a good advertisement for the political process or for the new form of government.

Put simply, sticking to the 55% rule doesn't add up.


Sir George Young, justifying the rule, refers to the Scottish parliament requiring a 2/3 majority to achieve a dissolution. This type of measure is required, apparently, to manage the increased political stresses that arise within coalition government.

That is as may be. But this is more than just a simple supply and confidence measure. Together with fixed term parliaments, it has the strong flavour of European style government—where coalitions are the norm, governments appear to change but people and policies stay the same, and no-one can ever kick the bu––ers out.


The more this issue is discussed and attempts are made to explain it, the clearer it seems that the root lies in the determination to establish [a] fixed term parliament[s].

Few people seem to consider a fixed term parliament as controversial or unwarranted. Yet, as we see, nothing is so straightforward or without constitutional consequences.

The 55% dissolution rule gives politicians the chance to cobble together an alternative coalition government if the existing coalition partnership fails. In the present Con–LibDem case, this would actually enable the LibDems to seek to join a coalition with Labour and others if the present coalition failed. (Or Conservatives might join with Labour, of course!)

All of this would take place without reference to the electorate—and would be enabled by the determination not to dissolve parliament within the timeframe of a fixed term parliament.

Consider fixed terms as the actual democratic problem and it presents the issue in a different light.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Moving up and moving on

So as the dust starts to settle in Downing Street it seems we have a new governing party.

It should probably be no surprise that an energetic marketing man should feel the urge every few years to step up, move on and try his hand at something new.

The emotional impact of such change usually affects just a few fellow workers. In David Cameron's case, the impact is felt by several million close followers—plus 306 dependent members of parliament.

Yesterday, in the No 10 rose garden, Cameron justified his move by saying his negotiations with Nick Clegg led him to believe a full coalition between Conservatives and LibDems was not only possible but desirable. The alternative—the risk of needing to fight an election again in several months and possibly losing—clearly focused his mind.

The full-blooded coalition was an intelligent decision but rash and risky. Cameron's willingness to fully engage with this new big idea may have led him to set aside the impact it could have beyond Westminster. The Big Coalition concept remains untested among the thousands of both party's workers and millions of supporters outside the meeting rooms off Whitehall.

Yet it seems we must adapt to the proposition that elected politicians lead and their parties must follow—or be left behind. We live in extraordinary and critical times. And a coalition government of national emergency may be the most rational solution to addressing the country's issues.

Meanwhile, party workers like myself who may feel abandoned by the new politics, might consider an analogy with a family experiencing a new birth. As elder siblings we have become used to our familiar domestic environment. Now a new member has arrived the attention we expect has been transferred to nurturing the new arrival. We will have to adapt—in time may get used to it.

Certainly, for now we can only be hopeful, and magnanimous, and allow this powerful new government time to set about its unprecedented tasks in the way it presently thinks best.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A Very British Coup

Two days ago I wrote that Gordon Brown's attempt to steal the election by partnering with the LibDems would be an undemocratic poltitical coup.

Today, it seems likely the prize for achieving a coup in British politics falls squarely with David Cameron.

Full details have yet to be announced of the concessions Cameron has made to his new Liberal Democrat partners, but in addition to five Cabinet posts they include twenty junior ministerial positions. That amounts to 44% of the LibDem parliamentary party.

The most interesting question—as yet to be revealed—is whether this coalition is a takeover of the Liberal Democrats by Conservatives or a takeover of the Conservative Party by David Cameron.

The first proposition is not hard to justify. The opportunity to lock LibDems into a five year parliament and remove substantial opposition in parliament to the Conservative programme is a political achievement without parallel by David Cameron.

The second proposition—that Cameron may have done as much or more to change the nature of Conservatism in Britain through the coalition government he has formed—has yet to be fully uncovered.

Cameron led a very insular policy development group in the run-up to the election and the grassroots party handed him open-ended trust that all would be for the best if it won the election.

The subsequent negotiations with the Liberal Democrats were even more secretive. We may learn that Cameron has conceded so much to the LibDems that the party he leads will find it hard to recognise Cameron's policies as Conservatism.

This could yet be revealed as even a coup in reverse, in which Cameron has willingly adopted a change in the philosophy of the party to reflect a broader liberalism, if not social democracy.

Either way—whether it is Cameron or Clegg who has shifted the most—we have seen a remarkable realignment in British politics in the space of just five days.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Sense and justice prevails - at last

Here at Pol-e-tics we feel exhausted. The energetic run-up to the election, the all-night marathon following results, the dawning of a victory so narrowly missed and the daily roundabout of LibDem indecision ... towards the end it began to pall.

But now the elation of victory is sublime!

Cameron has been dignified throughout—keeping his distance from the media—which will make the sight of his appearance finally to declare a Conservative-led government all the more dramatic and satisfying.

The fact is that over the election and subsequent negotiations the Conservatives have won!

There have been doubts over the negotiations within all three parties. This is unsurprising given the electoral result produced a situation our traditional party system is not designed to cope with.

The Labour party deal was never going to be a winner—even if it had been sealed. Some sensible Labour MPs were willing to acknowledge that a Libd–Lab pact would be undemocratic.

Then many Conservative supporters believe Cameron went too far and should have tried to run a minority government. Again, this would be an undemocratic result that ignored the numbers delivered by the electorate.

More party political still, some Conservatives believe Cameron should have walked away from any government. This would leave other parties to do their worst until an inevitable fresh election restored Conservatives to power with a sound majority.

But such a strategy is just not part of Conservative DNA. Conservatives are pragmatic but above all responsible. The country needs a government, and a Conservative government. To walk away from the challenge would be cowardly, damaging and irresponsible.

Can Conservative parliamentarians work with the LibDems?

The LD leadership has not covered itself with glory over its negotiating tactics. Conservatives are familiar with LibDems facing two ways according to their audience. But what we have seen at play is the division between right and left that still lies at the heart of the LibDem party.

The liberal faction that stresses civil liberties and personal responsibility can make accord with Conservatives. The social democrats will have to live with the reality that Labour could not, or would not, deliver an alliance.

A lot has yet to be revealed about the Conservative–LibDem relationship and how it manifests in policy decisions. The alliance will be awkward and fragile.

But at last Labour is gone. Conservatives are substantially in power. And the process of bringing energy to restoring the nation can finally begin.

Brown's exit fractures the coup

A 'political coup' is a commonplace description of many commonplace events in political life. But the proposed partnership between Labour and the LibDems is a political coup for real.

Yet it seems to me that Gordon Brown's resignation—on which this coup depends—ironically throws a sizeable spanner into the grinding works of the potential LibDem–Lab coalition.

How will it be possible to line up the necessary minority parties to provide a notional majority, when none of them will know who their leading political partner will eventually be?

No minor party can rely on a new Labour leader honouring promises given today, whatever potential leadership candidates may say.

At best, such a coalition would have a maximum lifetime up to this autumn—just four and a half months including the summer.

The election of a new Labour leader would surely be the point when a new general election must be called—to establish leadership credibility and to try to bolster a parliamentary majority.

What party would consider it worthwhile to engage in such a sordid, unreliable and time-limited pact?

Apparently, the LibDems are such a party: such is their desperation to put electoral change before the political needs of the country.

But will any other parties—even though they too might benefit from electoral reform—be willing to share the consequences of the public's growing disgust at this attempted political coup in return for just 140 days in government?

And since the LibDems have handsomely illustrated over the past four days just what a "fair votes" election means, a coalition designed to achieve voting reform will probably have its aims duly turned down by a disgusted public.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Representation in proportion

Monday p.m. 10 May

The Conservatives do need an arrangement with the LibDems.

Not only is this necessary to have reasonable expectation of passing financial and deficit reduction measures in parliament: it is also necessary to provide electoral legitimacy to the government, which a minority government wouldn't have.

The LibDems do not need an arrangement with the Conservatives, unless they can be offered sufficient agreement on support for crucial LibDem policies.

The Conservatives would also benefit from a power sharing agreement by diluting the poison in the debt reduction chalice and spreading the electoral consequences.

The LibDems could suffer electorally by being party to severe measures. But they could gain from the statesmanship shown by enabling government to proceed and the rise in media profile provided by participation in government.

The Conservatives cannot deliver substantial voting reform. This could only be achieved legitimately—in public and political eyes—through a national referendum. Holding a referendum would need to be agreed by parliament. Only a decision to present this option to parliament and a contribution on the options to be presented to the public would be in Conservative hands. However, the Conservatives could offer other political reforms—such as Lords elections by PR, re-sizing constituencies, recall of politicians and a smaller parliament.

Going too far in supporting electoral reform in exchange for parliamentary support would be unacceptable for the Tory party. Creating a full coalition without substantial support for electoral reform would be unacceptable to many LibDems.

The best solution for both parties therefore seems to be a mid-way house that presents neither full coalition nor full independence.

Detailed agreements could be reached on a range of Conservative policies that LibDems would support, perhaps in modified form. And a number of LibDem policies could be introduced without party political difficulty. These agreements would be published to reassure both parties.

LibDems would not take cabinet posts, could retain their independence, and continue to provide criticism of Conservative government policy outside the areas of support.

Of course, LibDems could still opt to partner with Labour. But I don't think it's excessively party political to say this would be a shameful election result.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Seeing the Big Picture

There are different ways to fulfil a task. One can do it my way, the familiar way, the way we've always done it. Or one can try to see the bigger picture and respond as actual circumstances demand.

David Cameron has surprised by stepping out of his Conservative clothing and showing willingness to consider other modes of operation to address the task he has been set of governing the country.

Some, especially in the Conservative party, may find Cameron's flexibility no surprise at all. For some dedicated activists, it may confirm he's no Conservative at all. But for others, seeing the bigger picture, inside and outside the party, it may confirm him as a statesman of our times.

Cameron could have opted for the challenge of a minority administration, but he evidently saw – ahead of many commentators – that this would not deliver 'strong, stable and decisive government'.

So he's gone further and faster than many could imagine to bring the political crisis the indecisive election has caused to a stable end.

The negotiations to secure a deal with the LibDems to form a new government will probably, inevitably reveal shades of the shabbiness we've come to associate with such deals.

But the difference with coalition deals of the past is that this one is not intended to support a weak and disgraced government. It is intended to introduce new, fresh government that can survive the party politics of parliament and deliver the decision-making the country urgently needs.

And there are political advantages for the Conservatives. It is possible that a Tory–LibDem deal could see the end of Labour socialism that Margaret Thatcher long sought to achieve.

Labour have been thoroughly outmanouvered. First by the electorate and now by the willingness of Cameron to go beyond party limitations to embrace a more liberal vision of Britain.

Whatever emerges from the Cameron–Clegg discussions (and even a weakened Clegg has indicated statesmanship too) Brown and his cohorts have become Yesterday's Men, sounding more desperate, shabby and divorced from the reality of British politics by the hour.

Cameron, on the other hand, has revealed his intelligence by recognising the electorate are not yet ready to go solid blue.

But he is now the man of the moment. And with good grace, sound judgement and not a little creativity, he could be the statesman to form a government that finally addresses both the electorate's and the nation's needs.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Who says who stays, who goes?

I'm intrigued by the Constitutional Arrangements established by the Cabinet Office for this election.

As I understand it, if the governing party receives the most seats but fails to gain a majority, it assumes a right to continue in power until winning or losing the vote on the Queen's speech.

Perhaps this is just a formal iteration of an acknowledged procedure. Yet my memory tells me the convention was that the Monarch herself decides who will be allowed to try to form a government.

I'm not actually advocating the Conservatives form an alliance with the LibDems, or with any other parties, but, in theory, there are potentially stronger options available than Brown trying to cling to office with a minority government.

Is this another instance of our constitution being 'modernised' by politicised officials—just like those in Brussels?

I presume the Queen's opinion on this constitutional matter also hasn't been sought.

UPDATE: Wed 5th May
Professor Robert Hazell, of the Constitution Unit at UCL, tonight confirmed the impact of the constitutional arrangements he has recommended for the event of a hung parliament.

If Cameron gains the most seats, but less than a majority, by Friday morning he'll be claiming victory and a right to form the next government—with or without others' help. But according to the newly defined procedures, Gordon Brown will still get first bite at the cherry.

If Brown can fix an arrangement with other parties that could survive the Queen's speech, then he'll be able to continue in government and the Conservatives (despite winning most seats) won't get a chance to offer a plausible alternative.

This doesn't sound very fair to me.

Professor Hazell may be called to defend his recommendation, together with Gus O'Donnell at the Cabinet Office.

N.B. Hazell is an expert in constitutional reform research that is substantially funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which in turn is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is of course Lord Mandelson's department.