“But where would he put his folder!?” was one Tory MP’s reaction to the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that Lord David Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, take questions in the Commons. As the New Statesman revealed last week, the report out today suggests Cameron be called to the Bar of the House, an arcane mechanism whereby he stands (or sits on a chair as the Duke of Wellington did in 1814) behind the white line in the Commons chamber opposite the Speaker’s chair, and take questions from MPs.
This would be a spectacle. Or in the words of the Hansard Society: it would “risk making the House look ridiculous”. Nonetheless, the Speaker’s letter to the committee indicates he supports calling Cameron to the Bar. The House of Lords would have to agree, and the government would probably have to allow time for the motion to be voted on.
If it did happen, serious constitutional questions would be raised. There have been cabinet ministers in the Lords – Peter Mandelson and Nicky Morgan are among the more recent – but Cameron is the first holder of a great office of state to sit in the Upper House in 40 years. Before the report, his appearances before Commons select committees were thought to be sufficient – not least because the quality of interrogation is often better than in the chamber. But this wasn’t ideal because not all MPs, including the opposition front bench, could hold the Foreign Secretary to account.
But there are issues with this new solution. While all MPs could ask the former prime minister questions if he was called to the Bar, it would legitimise the notion that senior cabinet ministers could sit in the Lords. The separation between the elected and appointed chambers – and their respective authority – would be blurred. To remedy this, the Procedure Committee states its recommendation is “time-limited… and should not set a precedent”. But it is easy to say that. If a future prime minister appointed another cabinet member from the Lords – which is their prerogative – what’s to stop a future Procedure Committee making the same “time-limited” recommendation?
Whether this becomes a feature of British politics could depend on how Cameron’s appearances (if they happen) work in practice. But the Commons will lose either way. If it’s a farce – which seems likely given that Cameron excels at avoiding questions – then there will be little accountability. If it is a serious interrogation that yields a new perspective on the workings of the Foreign Office, then the practice will be more attractive to legislators in the future. The upshot is the Commons may gain the power to hold Cameron to account but at the same time cede legitimacy to the House of Lords. A poor trade.
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