Anything but. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The government's plans for English votes for English laws get worse the more you look at them

The government's plans for English votes are undemocratic, bad for accountability, and bad for the United Kingdom. Other than that, they're great, says Ian Lucas MP.

The keystone of a democratic nation’s legislature is that its elected representatives have an equal voice. On Thursday 2 July 2015, in the United Kingdom Parliament, that principle was set aside. The Government’s proposals to give additional rights to MPs from England, compared to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland abrogates that principle and, as a consequence, the future of the United Kingdom is threatened.

The creation of a separate English Grand Committee with exclusive, real powers also introduces English devolution by the back door. It means that, from next week, the Tories will, for laws deemed English, increase their majority from 12 to 105. This makes the Tories’ majority unassailable, transforming them from a marginal majority government, into one with a landslide majority.

When, in 1997, Labour legislated to introduce devolution, it introduced the Additional Member System in the devolved legislatures to mitigate the impact of its-then-overwhelming majority. The Tories have no such qualms, retaining the First Past the Post voting system to preserve their majority in the new English Grand Committee.

And they will do so without legislation, simply by amending Standing Orders of the House of Commons. This means that the House of Lords will not consider the change.

Conservative MPs from England say repeatedly that there are already two classes of MP – that they are second class MPs because there are devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is wholly untrue. All MPs in the UK have, in practical terms, the same standing as regards matters devolved to the nations’ legislatures. Thus, as an MP from Wales, I have the same rights as an MP from England to ask questions on devolved matters: none, because Parliament has decided to devolve responsibility for these matters to the devolved institutions.

If England would prefer to have a devolved legislature, it is entirely open to it to create one, or a number of devolved legislatures, if it so wishes. That it has not done so is a matter of choice of Parliament. If one is to be created, it should be done using the law of the land to effect constitutional change. It beggars belief that an English jurisdiction is being created without legislation.

In the Commons, I asked the Leader of the House of Commons to name one power that I, as an MP from Wales, have that he, as an MP from England, does not have. He could not do so. If these proposals go through, he, on the other hand, will have powers that I do not have: the keystone of equality for MPs within the House of Commons is gone.

It is extraordinary that a Secretary of State who professes himself a Unionist cannot see the danger of this proposal. Giving additional rights to MPs from England, as distinguished from those in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, gives additional impetus to the nationalist arguments that they are being treated unfairly. For, as the Democratic Unionist MP from Northern Ireland, Nigel Dodds, has highlighted, the Government is refusing to give the same rights to MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in non-devolved areas that he is giving to MPs from England.

What is even more bizarre is that the Government does not propose that this rule should apply in the House of Lords. I have a working peer living in my constituency. In future, my rights to take part in legislative proceedings, as an elected member, will be limited in a way that his will not be.

The implications of this policy are immense: it is likely that MPs from outside England will be unable to be Ministers on those bills that are deemed to be England only as they will be excluded from relevant committees. The question arises whether it will be possible to have a Prime Minister from outside England as he will be unable to participate fully in England only legislation.

Those of us who love the United Kingdom, from whatever party, must act now. The Government’s proposals pose an immediate threat to the Union. They must be withdrawn and replaced by a considered, open process to address the challenged posed by constitutional change.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re still being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty in British politics.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.