Tony Grew: Everyone must bear some blame for this shameful parliament

Posted On: 
10th September 2019

This has been a parliament of obscene self-indulgence. Never has a general election been more welcome, writes Tony Grew

MPs vote on Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement
Credit: 
UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

"There will be no more feverish speculation over the date of the next election, distracting politicians from getting on with running the country. Instead, everyone will know how long a parliament can be expected to last, bringing much greater stability to our political system."

These words were said in the House of Commons on 13th September 2010 by Nick Clegg, then the deputy prime minister, now of Facebook. He was introducing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. He was wrong. Far from providing stability, the act has kept in place a government that has been the most unstable anyone can remember. It has also stopped the present government from triggering a general election despite its lack of a majority.

The FTPA will go down in history as one of the most ill-fated pieces of legislation ever to be passed by a UK parliament. The Lords, of course, warned about this, but the government was resolute. Mr Clegg also said: "Everyone knows the damage that is done when a prime minister dithers and hesitates over the election date, keeping the country guessing. All that happens is that the political parties end up in perpetual campaign mode ... the only way to stop that ever happening again is by the reforms contained in the bill."

What would have happened if the FTPA never existed? For a start, Theresa May could have declared the first vote on her withdrawal agreement to be a matter of confidence. She could have threatened a general election if MPs rejected what she had negotiated with the EU. Instead, MPs were free to vote whatever way they liked, with no consequences for them in doing so. This allowed the ERG to vote with the opposition to defeat the government over and over again.

This has been a parliament of obscene self-indulgence. A parliament where MPs think it is their role to "seize" the order paper from the government and try their hand at being the executive for a day. The whipping system seems to be non-existent for much of this parliament.

Brexit is not a matter of conscience, it's a matter of party policy. Yet at every occasion, we have seen Labour MPs voting with the government and Tory MPs voting against it. It has made a mockery of our finely balanced system. The opposition may rue the day they decided to back moves to seize control from the government. In a matter of months, they could find themselves actually in government with a small majority. What is to stop a group of Labour rebels joining with the opposition to seize control?

This parliament has seen the Speaker making up the rules as he goes along, reinterpreting standing orders to suit whatever purpose he wants to put them to. For clarity, changes to standing orders or innovative interpretations of the word 'notwithstanding' should be considered by the procedure committee and put to the vote in the House, not announced on the hoof from the chair.

The Speaker's supporters will argue that any rulings he made were merely to facilitate the will of the House. That's a compelling argument but one that ignores the constitutional reality that the government controls the order paper – it has done for more than a century. Now that we know John Bercow is to stand down, how will the next Speaker resist calls for them to act as John Bercow has done?

The unfortunate conclusion is that he has harmed the office he clearly respects.

Now the FTPA, the gift that keeps on giving, has ensnared a second prime minister. Boris Johnson has the right to go to the country and seek a renewed mandate for his government. That right was taken away from him by Mr Clegg, who the people of Sheffield Hallam decided not to return to the House to deal with the fallout of the Act he promoted.

Both the May and Johnson administrations have behaved appallingly. They have bullied, side-lined and tried to ignore parliament at every opportunity. May's government hid documents – only partially and grudgingly released impact papers when ordered to – and eventually was found in contempt of parliament. They ignored entirely the devolved governments, attempted to negotiate in secret and came back with a messy compromise that pleased nobody. Johnson's government rediscovered the whip, with disastrous consequences. They are now talking openly about trying to get around a law that parliament passed to prevent no deal.

In this shameful parliament, everyone must bear some blame. Self-indulgent MPs voting how they liked. A Speaker who decided his job was to be "on the side of MPs", which it clearly is not. An opposition without a coherent policy on Brexit seeking only to harm the government with no care at all of the national interest. Our international reputation trashed. The laughing stock of Europe. Never has a general election been more welcome.

*****
It's hard to fathom it, but the Father of the House is an independent MP. After nearly five decades as a Conservative, Ken Clarke has had the whip withdrawn. He has been an MP since June 1970. He doesn't seem too bothered about it and has announced he is standing down at the next election. He will be sorely missed. It is said that Dennis Skinner, who was elected at the same time but took the oath later than Ken Clarke, does not want to take up the role of Father of the House. So, Sir Peter Bottomley it is.

*****
The Commons is advertising for a new chaplain. The job specification says the job entails "the very important pastoral care for members and all staff", and of course conducting marriages and baptism as well as leading daily prayers in the Commons chamber. We wish all the best to whoever is successful (CofE only). He or she will have big shoes to fill. Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, an outstanding chaplain, has been promoted to become Bishop of Dover. She begins work in her new diocese in November. We fully expect to see her in the Lords at some point in the future.