Politics.co.uk Blog

Thursday, 27 May 2010

All change on the committee corridor

The Speaker may have been re-elected, the pomp of the Queen's Speech may be over and done with, but there is still plenty of settling-in to come in Westminster.

Next on the list for many veteran MPs are the select committees, a vital outlet for those who need to feel self-important but have never quite made it on to the frontbench.

In fact the select committees do a vital job: they are crucial to the functioning of parliament in holding the government to account. Arguably the most senior select committee chairs have more influence than the lowliest ministers of state.

This is why the new process of electing these committee chairs is so important. We discovered this week the allocations by party of the committees, which mean in some cases there are inevitably going to be new MPs filling vital roles.

We're going to be investigating who's looking promising in the next few days. But for now, here's a list of the committees where a bit of internal politicking is called for.

Business, innovation and skills - Conservative (as before, but former chairman Peter Luff is now procurement minister in the Ministry of Defence)
Education - Conservative
Energy and climate change - Conservative
Environmental audit - Labour
Foreign affairs - Conservative
Health - Conservative
Northern Ireland - Conservative
Public accounts - Labour
Public administration - Conservative
Science and technology committee - Labour
Treasury - Conservative
Welsh affairs - Conservative
Work and pensions committee - Labour (ex-chairman Terry Rooney lost his seat)

Monday, 24 May 2010

God loves the coalition

One enjoyable feature of the new politics is that it's predominantly conducted outside.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron's rose garden press conference in Downing Street has already turned into a Westminster legend. Today, it was George Osborne and David Laws' turn, as they set up podiums outside to present us with the first chapter in the 'Age of Austerity'.

The beautiful, steaming sunshine did them no harm, even if the content of their words was as gloomy and miserable as a February morning.

What's remarkable is how appropriately the weather is framing itself to the new government's needs. As Cameron prepared to enter Downing Street, the clouds parted and the sunshine briefly shone from the darkening skies. At the rose garden, the threat of rain was very real, and a few drops fell before organisers could breathe a sigh of relief.

Today – well you couldn't ask for nicer weather. It appears God believes in coalitions.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Nukes, the PM and a dose of letter-writing

Getting used to being prime minister takes some time. Getting used to being in charge of the nuclear codes, it seems, takes even longer.

A former Cabinet secretary has told of the "shock" new prime ministers feel when they have to write orders to Britain's nuclear submarines.

Former chief civil servant Lord Butler told the BBC Radio 4 programme Day One in No 10 about the reaction of both John Major and Tony Blair when he briefed them on their responsibility for deciding how and when to use the country's nuclear weapons, as they took office.

Here are the wise words of Lord Butler: "They reacted as you'd expect any human being to react: soberly, shocked if they hadn't realised before that that was one of the things that they would have to do at the start of their administration. So I would say it was a shock and a sobering one."

New premiers are briefed by the Cabinet secretary on what their options are regarding the use of the UK's four Trident submarines in case the country's government is destroyed.

They are then left to write the secret letter to Trident commanders alone, "wrestling with their own beliefs and conscience," according to Lord Butler.

The letters are sealed and sent to the submarine commanders and are top secret.

"I mean they are clearly really secret because the whole point of a nuclear deterrent is who your enemy doesn't know what he may incur if he attacks you, and so these are highly secret things, and only one person, who is the initiator of them, knows what the orders are, and that is the prime minister."

Let's hope Cameron's letter-writing skills are up to scratch. He won't want to complete this one at the end of a long day in power.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The grisly fate of Bercow's predecessors

John Bercow may find himself suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune later today, but he should be thankful. They are at least figurative rather than literal.

Looking back at parliament's history we find the role has been littered with men who have consistently faced rejection, sometimes in distressingly violent form.

Notes on the parliament website's briefing paper provide some intriguingly sketchy details about the fates of some of these poor, poor individuals.

An early trendsetter was Sir John Bussy, the MP for Lincolnshire, whose four-year Speakership was swiftly followed by his beheading in 1399. Perhaps his fate was linked to that of his successor, Sir John Cheyne, who resigned after only two days in office.

Sir John Popham was too poorly to actually take on the job, being excused on the day of his election because of ill health on November 8th 1449. That may have been a sensible move; Thomas Thorpe of Essex was beheaded after serving as Speaker in 1453 and 1454.
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Matters had not really improved 50 years later, when two ex-Speakers - Sir Richard Empson and Edward Dudley - were beheaded together.

The traumas of the 17th century provide us with a raft of rather grisly fates. Sir John Finch of Canterbury was impeached by the long parliament in October 1640 and fled to Holland. This was a period when, with the Commons confronting the monarch in a constitutional showdown, being Speaker really was rife with peril.

The note next to William Say's entry - he was Speaker in January of 1660 - simply reads "regicide".

After the monarchy had been restored matters appeared to have calmed down. But there was still room for Sir John Trevor, the MP for both Yarmouth and the Isle of Wight, to be expelled from the Commons in 1695 for taking a bribe.

There then followed 314 years of relative calm. It took the 2009 expenses scandal before we come to the next Speaker to face an unpleasant fate: Michael Martin's exit was truly historic.

Let's wait and see what note is to be written against the name of one John Bercow, who represented the constituency of Buckingham. Whatever happens later today, he won't have met the worst fate on this list of victims.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The calm between the storms

This is going to be a strange, strange week.

Apart from anything else we're not expecting a change of government in the next five days.

Yes, there are a few more details to be ironed out as the final details of the coalition agreement are published. But this is the week which comes after last week's dramatic and historic deal - and before the dramatic and historic Budget which will see the new government commit itself to drastic public spending cuts in a bid to placate the markets.

Nowhere was this hiatus period more apparent than in the first lobby briefing of the new government.

The new prime minister's spokesman (PMS) deserves pity: this is a tough job at the best of times. But in a week when the government has barely managed to come up with its full range of policies he doesn't have much to go on.

For now, the PMS has very little to work with. Usually after a general election the winning party's manifesto would be the main point of reference. But on a day when the chancellor's first major announcement was the launch of a body backed by another party, normal rules don't apply.

Instead he was forced to retreat to the six-page coalition agreement as the only real concrete statement of government policy. It was reported today, for example, that the Lib Dem-Tory coalition intends to create over 100 new peers to smooth the flow of its legislation.

The PMS frowned when asked about this, before reading out the relevant section from the initial coalition document. Proposals are being brought forward "for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation". In the interim, crucially, "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the general election". The PMS made his position clear: "It's quite a leap to go from that to 100 more peers." Is it, though?

Until the full coalition document arrives we can expect much more of this. The 24-hour news agenda has its own demands, but we're all being forced to wait as the coalition works out its stance on a whole range of issues. The final document, by the way, can be expected "quite soon" - probably within the next couple of weeks. The ultimate deadline is the Queen's Speech, which takes place on May 25th.

Until then the government has very little to say on the many, many issues of national importance which must be addressed. "This is quite an unusual week," the PMS said dolefully. How right he is.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Not so boring anymore

No sooner had I written yesterday about the boredom of closed-door negotiations, than Gordon Brown decided to make a statement and the whole world went mad.

There had been rumours of a statement throughout the morning, but news only got to us that it was definitely happening eight minutes before it began.

Cue a desperate dash from parliament to Downing Street, as a small army of overweight, borderline-alcoholic hacks pushed tourists out the way in a violent attempt to get to church on time. For us news reporters, it was important. For sketch writers – it was essential.

Alas, most of us were too late. Trapped outside by a scowling policeman and a thick black gate, most of Fleet Street's finest were forced to hobble around one man with an iphone, set to Radio 4, which was playing the statement.
Just as Brown said he was now going to comment on his future, it cut out, triggering much horror and dismay from very recognisable faces. Then it came back in. "The reason that we have a hung parliament is that no single party and no single leader was able to win the full support of the country," Brown said. "As leader of my party I must accept that that is a judgement on me. I therefore intend to ask the Labour party to set in train the processes needed for its own leadership election."
"My God," someone muttered. Tourists, gathered around outside Downing Street, watched us with a mixture of curiosity and mild pity. Since then it's been frantic and occasionally funny, but there's no boredom anymore. There won't be today either.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The boredom of historic events

For such exciting times, it's getting terribly dull.

These are, of course, unprecedented times, times that will go down in history. But after three days of meetings with no content to report, the journalist's job is getting strangely tedious.

The stories are starting to resemble a secretary's diary: A meeting took place at this time between these people.

It's impressive how few leaks there have been. We have no idea what is being said. The quotes we get afterwards are exactly the same as they were on Saturday. Basically, 'positive and amicable talks are being conducted to create a stable government'.

Today, we might have a little more information when we camp out outside Lib Dem and Tory internal meetings in parliament, hoping for a bit of gossip. But the weird combination of historic events and dull news stories looks set to continue for a while longer.