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May 20, 2009

Why the next Speaker has to be Sir George Young

I won’t predict the next Speaker of the House of Commons. My last prediction, that Michael Martin would cling on, proved to be somewhere in the region of wrong.

Instead, I’ll offer a few reasons why the Conservative MP for North-West Hampshire, Sir George Young, should be trusted with the role.

1) Independence
He’s not afraid to walk the difficult path. In Andover, the centre of his constituency, he disagreed with almost every Conservative in the town on plans for an enormous Tesco warehouse. They generally supported it – he was one of the leaders of the campaign against it. By doing so, he was against those who wanted the jobs, but probably caught the public mood at the time. Perhaps he was guilty of following that public mood for electoral gain, but nevertheless, don’t we need a Speaker who’s in touch with what the public wants right now?

2) Transparency
Sir George was one of the first MPs to publish their expenses online. I doubt there are any others who reveal their spending in as much detail as this. In 06/07 he claimed £165 for food, for instance. The one black mark on his record might be that he maxed out his second home allowance for the last two years.

3) Balance
If convention is that the Speakership rotates between someone from the Government benches and someone from the Opposition benches, it really is time for a Tory.

4) Form
As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, he knows how the system works but can’t be blamed for its failings. He’s also a man in tune with the times – he led a campaign to get broadband into rural areas back in 2001.

5) The X Factor
He’s likable. He’s not annoyed anyone on the opposition benches, and he’s a lover of Parliament (theyworkforyou.com says he has well-above average attendance). Yes, he’s a Baronet, and yes he’s what people might call a ‘Grandee’, but he’s also a safe pair of hands, from the right party, at the right time.

P.S. Make of this disclosure what you will, but I lived, for just over a year, in Sir George’s constituency and regularly met with him to do radio interviews. That fact probably colours/informs my judgement somewhat.


May 18, 2009

The Speaker will cling on

I think the Speaker of the House of Commons did enough today to cling onto his big green seat.

He was, of course, awful. Woeful. Abysmal. He needed a good showing, and he summarily proved he didn’t know House of Commons rules by getting confused over the technical arcania of substantive motions. I was momentarily transported back to student politics.

Shudder.

But he was nice to Gordon Prentice and Douglas Carswell who did their very best to rile him.

This was out of character, and was the one solitary thing he did today that was different from last week. Hidden in his measured, if stuttered tone was a smidgen of a whiff of a note of change.

The Speaker didn’t give the people (nor the media) what they wanted though. No retirement date. No immediate release of every MP’s expenses. And beyond that faint dram of forced friendliness, no sign of change.

He doesn’t want to go. The PM may want him to go politically, but electorally a by-election in the until-now safe Glasgow North East seat would be disastrous. And a contrived band of Scottish friends, led by the ridiculous Lord Foulkes, don’t want him to go.

All they have by way of weaponry is the sharp sword of convention.

Rarely do five or six people stand up to sixty million and win. In this battle, full of history and precedents, they just might.


September 06, 2006

What the political journalists aren't telling you…

It’s clear that things are shifting pretty quickly in Westminster. Today seven members of the government have resigned because – essentially – Tony Blair won’t resign.

But we’re not quite getting the whole story, because we never do. The way these things work in Westminster are a bit complicated and full of as much conspiracy as you can probably imagine. I’m afraid I am speculating, but here’s what’s probably going on at the moment:

  1. The Labour backbenchers are furious that Tony Blair has announced a date for his departure, without actually saying so himself. Instead you had David Miliband explain the “conventional wisdom”, Hilary Armstrong tell us of the “perceived wisdom” and poor Hilary Benn speak of the “growing consensus”. It was pretty clear they were all singing from the same hymn-sheet, written by No 10. What’s more, the Sun were more specific in naming a date, which anyone who knows Westminster knows it will have come from No 10 too. Interestingly the leaked memo saying how Blair would enjoy a ‘farewell tour’ of the country is rumoured to have come from Gordon Brown’s allies. It may even have been written by them to embarrass Blair.
  2. The seven Labour backbenchers who have resigned their positions will have been getting a) a lot of stick from the Labour whips, who work for Blair and b) a lot of love from Gordon Brown’s allies, who have probably promised them jobs in his government. Expect more to sign-up for the Brown revolution as soon as his henchmen can convince them of their future opportunities for employment.
  3. While 17 Labour MPs signed a letter yesterday, calling for him to go, another 49 signed one declaring their undying love for the leader (practically). What’s interesting isn’t that the Blair-lovers trumped the Blair-haters, but that they could only drum up support from 13% of the party. The rest are conspicuous by their absence.
  4. May 31st is an interesting date for Blair to choose to leave. Notably because it’s after the local, Scottish and Welsh elections next year. Blair is pretty unliked in Scotland and Wales, as he is seen (not surprisingly) as a stupid Englishman. So staying in power during their elections will piss them off no-end.
  5. News organisations like the BBC and Sky are having real difficulties in finding ministers who will stand up and support Blair. Hilary Benn did so last night because he was told to, but few others are coming out of the woodwork voluntarily. Note that the 1 o’clock news on BBC One could only drum up a Welsh Lord, whose praise for Blair was extremely conditional on him going before May 31st. High praise indeed.
  6. While Labour backbench MPs want Blair out, they’re not entirely sure how to do it. There’s no formal mechanism for removing the leader (for some reason Blair decided not to create one!!!), and their best bet seems to be for the Cabinet to turn on him. As soon as you see a single member of the Cabinet say that they think it would be best for Blair to step down, he’s finished. They wouldn’t say so openly unless they thought they had support from others.
  7. Some of the Labour MPs who have resigned were slavishly Blairite before today. It suggests that their political career was built upon brown-nosing (no pun intended) whoever appears to be in charge. Now that Brown is in the driving seat, people are switching vehicles.

Personally it’s very frustrating I can’t sit in on the Lobby briefings that take place at Number 10. The tension must be incredible. Maybe they’d like to invite me? Ha ha! You can get some idea of what’s been said here, but you really have to read between the lines to figure out what sort of body language the PM’s official spokesman would have been using! I rather suspect he was trying hard to hide his dejection.

P.S. I notice from the PMOS briefing this morning: “As he had already said… David Miliband had decided to go on the Today Programme himself.” The question is whether he decided what to say himself…

P.P.S. The seven members of the government who’ve resigned all have one thing in common: their seats are in danger at the next election. They’re all from the Birmingham area (where Labour reckons it’s going to get wiped out) or Wales (see above for explanation). So it’s not about Tony going – they’re worried that if he doesn’t go soon, they’ll be following him shortly!


July 02, 2006

Do you really want a local MP?

Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer today:

The 'pavement politics' revolution the Liberals began in the Sixties now means we have MPs who know nothing about foreign or domestic politics, but their ignorance doesn't matter. What matters is that they're 'local'.

He makes a good point.

But a problem also presents an opportunity. With reform of the House of Lords likely to create a partially–elected second chamber, why not split the responsibility of the two houses more explicitly?

The House of Commons can 'run the country' and make important decisions about foreign and most domestic affairs while the new House of Lords serves mainly to represent the views of the common people. It makes the names of the chambers slightly confusing, but I think it could work, especially if the New Lords is given enough power to hold the New Commons to account.

Perhaps spending projects over £1bn can be made in the New Commons while smaller spending can be fought over in the New Lords where the Members are more acutely concerned with their constituents interests.

It would make for an interesting democratic experiment and could well result in higher levels of democratic representation. It could also hint at a new consensus–based politics, as it would be more than likely to have Labour leading one house and the Conservatives leading the other, and might, just might, create a need for a specific President and Prime Minister when he have such figures already, albeit under different name–plates. And such a system would also make proportional representation an imperative in one house at least, if not both.

It sounds to me like the Lib Dems might – through their negative campaign in Bromley and Chislehurst – inadvertantly have found a solution to Britain's democratic deficit. The Lords should be built on new foundations – locally concerned ones.


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