I'm afraid you can't do that, Dave. Photo: Getty Images
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The Prime Minister should rethink his disastrous plan to shrink the Commons

David Cameron's silly solution to an imagined problem will only cause trouble - and many Conservative MPs agree, says Nigel Dodds.

During general election campaigns, long periods in opposition, and even unhappy periods in coalition, parties can say things which in retrospect aren’t always as sensible as they seemed to them at the time. One such example was the supposed innate unfairness of our electoral system and the consequent ‘need’ to reduce the House of Commons to just 600 members. This was always a deeply flawed proposal and the recent election result only goes to show how misplaced the reasoning was, not least as far as my Conservative friends are concerned.

However, if the government’s plans to weaken parliament by reducing the number of MPs while simultaneously providing no concrete assurances that the size of the government will be shrunk go ahead as currently planned, our democracy is going to be damaged. Put simply: a smaller parliament and a proportionately bigger government is bad for British democracy, and I’m confident that a majority of MPs are going to think this way. That’s why I asked the Prime Minister today whether he is committed to this policy, and that’s why I think he’s so wrong to say that he is.

Let’s consider the theoretical, principled problems before going on to the very real practical ones in a smaller parliament but a bigger government. A surprising number of Conservative colleagues for several parliaments now have quite seriously maintained that FPTP was ‘biased’: that somehow the operation of elections in this country was rigged against their party. Many statistics were quoted about how many voters it took to elect different shades of MPs and this was adduced to mean unfairness. We don’t hear those figures being bandied about any more for the simple reason that there never was such systemic ‘bias’. I’ve no doubt a lot of Tories sincerely meant these charges but as the recent general election conclusively shows, they are and always were a nonsense. All FPTP does is reward or punish a party depending on how it mobilises its votes in any particular election.

As the success of Lynton Crosby has, I hope, shown, FPTP is blind, just and even-handed. Do better in your campaigning and you’ll do better in the number of seats you get.

But this then brings me to how many MPs there should be. As part of the decade long complaints about the supposed but actually non-existent bias of FPTP, a boundary review shrinking the House of Commons was proposed as part of the answer to this fictional problem. Well, the problem didn’t really exist and therefore the solution really shouldn’t be applied.

As things stand, the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act means that the next House of Commons is supposed to be reduced to only 600 members. As we’ve seen, the principal rationale – ‘FPTP discriminates against the Tory Party’ – is bunk, but the consequences of putting the law as it stands into effect are poorer still. The Act was a pretty shoddy piece of work, badly drafted and the result of a fairly unseemly stitch-up with the Lib Dems.

However its real failure today lies in the fact that the case was never coherently made why a smaller Commons is better for British voters. How are we better represented with fewer representatives? What distinguishes 600 from 650 or 500 or 635 or any other number you care to pluck out of the air as being the optimal figure for how many MPs there should be? And most fundamentally of all, how is the government better held to account when it stays the same but parliament gets smaller? No, the case for 600 wasn’t made and it shouldn’t be put into effect.

What will happen if the legislation in force proceeds as planned and the Commons shrinks down to 600 members? Without an accompanying, unbreakable commitment to reduce the size of the ministerial footprint – and there is nothing whatsoever in the legislation providing for such a reduction – the payroll votes swells dramatically in relation both to the opposition and to the government’s own backbenches. This can’t be good for politics. It can’t be good for the voters who now send fewer non-ministerial MPs to parliament than ever.

For all that some Tories did, perfectly sincerely, come to turn against FPTP, in my experience in the tearoom, plenty of Conservative friends never wavered in their support for our current electoral system. You don’t have to look far to see that the British way of doing elections holds its own quite comfortably against the international competition.

And those Tories who didn’t join in the chorus of abuse against FPTP share, I know, my profound doubts about the wisdom of needlessly reducing the size of the House of Commons. They see that in an organic constitution like ours, which seeks to see actual communities rather than abstract blocs represented in parliament, constituencies shouldn’t be entirely artificial, mathematically precise things. They have to grow out of the communities they’ll represent, not be derived from what a computer model says would deliver ‘equal representation’. And they know – and this include serving ministers – that a swollen, over-mighty government resting on a shrunken House of Commons is not the way of British parliamentary democracy.

All of which is why I want to make it clear: my party, like a significant number of the David Cameron’s colleagues, does not support the current proposal to make parliament a smaller, lesser thing. I’d advise the Prime Minister to think again, and very carefully, on this one.

 

Rt Hon Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP and leads the party at Westminster

 

Nigel Dodds is MP for North Belfast and leads the DUP at Westminster

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder