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3 November 2021

Will voters punish the Conservatives for blocking Owen Paterson’s suspension?

Maybe no one cares about parliamentary procedure. Maybe it matters anyway.

By Stephen Bush

Will the Conservatives’ decision to rewrite the parliamentary rulebook to protect Owen Paterson and to rewrite how complaints against MPs are assessed have electoral consequences?

It’s a question with a short answer: who cares?

No, really: who cares? Looking across elections throughout the world, we know that the democratic sanction on corruption, conflicts of interest and cronyism tends to be pretty small. Only a relatively small number of voters tend to place a high premium on it, and under an electoral system such as the UK’s – where the power of any one group of voters is determined not so much by their number but their location – frankly the constituency of voters who you might describe as the “anti-corrupt” (that is to say, people who care so much about corruption that they will vote to punish it even if they are aligned with the government of the day on taxation, education, health, crime, climate change and the other big vote-moving issues) is so small as to be derisory.

This is one of the best arguments for proportional representation: while it doesn’t increase the number of voters who are willing to prioritise corruption-free government over anything else, it does ensure at least some degree of parliamentary representation for the anti-corrupt. But even that system has its limits. We see at the moment in Austria that the mere presence of legislators whose main concern is to retain the support of “anti-corrupt” voters isn’t in itself a sufficient guard to a corrupt government – it can force a fresh election, but it can’t create an alternative governing majority out of thin air. One reason for the prolonged period of political deadlock in Israel is that the “anti-corrupt” were able to block and paralyse a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, but they weren’t able to form an alternative government without first going through four inconclusive elections.

This is part of why it isn’t good strategic sense for Labour to harp on too much about corruption and cronyism. The vote-moving issues they should be talking about are, in no particular order: jobs, crime and climate change. As I’ve written before, corruption and sleaze are bad dividing lines for the Labour Party because there is no great constituency of public opinion that wants Boris Johnson to say “why, yes, I am sleazy and corrupt”, and part of the art of a good dividing line is finding something that voters care about that your opponent cannot, for one reason or another, outflank you.

Not every political issue needs to be boiled down to whether or not it helps Labour pick up a few more seats in the Red Wall, or if Tory MPs should be worried about losing votes in marginal constituencies. But it is worth remembering that the importance of a particular issue isn’t necessarily reflected in the impact it can have on elections. Hardly anyone in 2005 cared about the debt-to-asset ratio of the world’s biggest banks, and it was not a vote-moving issue in the 2005 general election, but that issue has fundamentally changed and shaped the lives of almost everyone alive in the UK today, and in much of the world. Given that the next election won’t take place until, at the absolute outside, autumn 2023, it is entirely possible that by the time voters next head to the polls, even the people covering this story will have forgotten it.

Now, it’s certainly possible that the Conservative government rewriting the parliamentary complaints process to effectively allow only Tory MPs – who will have a majority on the new body, a fact further underlined by the decision of both Labour and the SNP to boycott it, given that they will have no meaningful say on what it does – becomes a running sore in the life of the government. I don’t think it’s likely but I accept that it’s possible.

But the reason why the governing party marking its own homework is bad is that corrupt processes tend to lead to poor outcomes. Protecting ministers who break the ministerial code eventually leads to poor quality ministers making bad decisions that cause real harm to large numbers of people – and for those people who view each and every issue solely through the lens of whether the guy who gives the victory speech after the next election is wearing a red tie or a blue one, sometimes that real harm has an electorally significant impact.

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We should worry that this move gives a huge and significant amount of control over how MPs are sanctioned to the governing party: and that this will have a chilling effect on whether or not MPs rebel or not. Whether or not it moves votes is, ultimately, a side issue.

[See also: Owen Paterson’s defenders have no convincing arguments]