A new pernicious and – surprise, surprise – anonymous campaign blog in support of scrapping early day motions has been established. Up until now, calls to scrap this system has been restricted to (usually Tory) MPs. Why an ordinary member of the public would want them scrapped is another matter.
If you go and have a peek at the EDM database, you could be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to defend. But you would be wrong. EDMs are currently one of the few ways in which backbench MPs can raise issues in Parliament – which means they are one of the few ways in which their constituents can raise issues in Parliament.
As a campaign tool, for both parliamentarians and pressure groups, they are invaluable. On an almost monthly basis you read news reports assessing the likelihood of a backbench rebellion succeeding or failing as a result of how many members have signed the accompanying EDM. They are a key tool for backbenchers to arm themselves against the whips, a way of forming strength in numbers. In order to get private members bill legislation through parliament they are absolutely crucial. The Sustainable Communities Act* would never have become law if 338 MPs – a clear majority – had not signed the accompanying EDM.
Could the system be improved? Of course. For one thing, the current paper-based system is a total waste of money. Parliament could – and should – move towards an electronic system. There is also merit in considering some kind of guillotine rule for EDMs which fail to get enough signatories within a week (for example). The biggest abusers of EDMs are MPs themselves who just can’t resist tabling EDMs about their local football or rugby teams, etc. Yet I have never seen a critic of the system call for it to be reformed, merely scrapped.
Who would benefit from scrapping the system? Party whips whose job would suddenly become much easier. MPs more generally – particularly those dinosaurs who have been taken to task over the past couple of months – whose views would be less open to public scrutiny. Multi-client lobbying companies, who would be able to assert a greater monopoly on who has access to Parliament (currently, voluntary sector organisation facing up against a lobbying firm can at least rely on the public record as a way of monitoring progress of their campaigns and ensuring MPs’ opinions’ can’t waver; without EDMs, the lobbying companies would be the only ones with the resources to monitor this).
So we should be wary of this peevish campaign and question why they are hiding behind the veil of anonymity. Come out come out, wherever you are!
* Interest: I work for Unlock Democracy which was – and remains – one of the main backers of the SCA.
How much longer can George Osborne hold on as Shadow Chancellor? Now is not the time for a flyweight to be in charge of the Tory’s economic policy, not least one who thinks that the best way to stop a “house burning down” is to “fix the roof.”
Today’s revelation by Nathaniel Rothschild that Osborne not only attended the legendary dinner with Peter Mandelson and Oleg Deripaska but that he solicited a donation from the man, could just be the final nail in the coffin. At the same time it smacks of poetic justice – it was Osborne who began this whole cycle of events by making indiscreet comments about a private dinner he had had with Mandelson in the first place.
Osborne has form with this sort of thing as well. Pretty much every time he opens his mouth he attempts to lower political debate to the level of the school playground, whether he is whinging about Gordon Brown snubbing him or making snide remarks about Gordon Brown being autistic. This sort of thing gets him headlines but I don’t think earns him much respect. That is probably at least partially why journalists have been so happy to leak him as the Mandelson “source” in the first place.
Osborne deserves a lot of credit for helping to detoxify the Tory brand with Cameron. As a marketing strategy, their’s has been near flawless. The problem has always been with the substance (and I’m not talking about the Class A Cameron may or may not have put up his nose before becoming an MP). The deliberate strategy to be policy-lite has broadly worked, but the wunch crunch changes all that. The Tories need a heavyweight leading their Treasury team, a Letwin or a Willetts, or their current wobble in the polls may start to become a southbound trend.
Let’s not forget about Caroline Spelman either by the way. The Parliamentary investigation about her nanny is still ongoing, and while I was one of the first to defend her, but things seem to have got much murkier since then. If this comes to the surface once again while the Osborne stink is still lingering, the Tories could have a full scale crisis on their hands. The received wisdom seems to be to replace her as quickly as possible with Eric Pickles. If that happens it will be interesting, as Pickles has a big mouth which could cause him all sorts of problems.
And then there is Cameron himself. As this blog has repeatedly noted, he has a tendency to capitulate rather than confront. Blair was a thousand times more ruthless and even he balked at sacking Mandelson. Both times. What all this seems to add up to is the makings of a political storm. That assumption that the next election is already in the bag may yet prove to be premature.
I don’t rate Caroline Spelman as a frontbencher. She has particularly annoyed me in the past by attacking the government for its proposals to revalue council tax (according to the Tories there is something magical about the year 1991 which means that all property taxes should based on the value of homes at that point). I question how someone who believes such nonsense can be said to be qualified to sit on the front benches of any political party. Sadly however, if you follow that logic you would have to get rid of most of all three front benches.
Regarding what will almost certainly be dubbed “nannygate” in all the Sunday papers tomorrow however, I am less inclined to criticise. I have watched both Crick’s totally unbalanced report and Spelman’s defence and am inclined to side with Spelman.
Let’s be clear; there is no doubt that her decision to employ her nanny to do some secretarial work for her after first getting elected in 1997 was in clear breach of the rules. But by all accounts it was an oversight, and one which was quickly corrected within less than a year. We are talking about what looks like a genuine mistake by a new MP, which was then corrected, and which happened over ten years ago.
Compared with, say, Margaret Beckett’s herbacious borders, this is very small fry, no matter what Crick and Guido might say. I’ve seen up close how bewildering and difficult it is for new MPs to get their offices up and running, and even to find out what they are and aren’t allowed to do. 2005 was the first year, as I understand it, that new MPs were given a formal induction. Such initiatives have always been resisted by whips who prefer to control the information their neonates receive so as to make it all the easier to keep them under control. Mistakes happen, and it is a very sorry state of affairs if we now seek to present even the slightest of cock ups by a politician as a sinister conspiracy against the public; not to mention highly delusional.
The biggest joke is Crick pointing out that the ex-nanny doesn’t mention the small bit of secretarial work she did on her Facebook profile. At around the same time I was doing temping work for the Legal Aid Board but I think Crick will struggle to find that on my Facebook profile either; that doesn’t “prove” I’m a liar for admitting I did it. I also like the comedy voice he put on when “quoting” the nanny, by way of demonstrating she must have been lying (as opposed to trying to recall a minor incident in her life ten years ago). I know what those Crick phonecalls are like having been on the receiving end of one myself; if a gobshite like me can be intimated, I’m not surprised she comes across as a little hesitant and nervous.
Of course, if it turns out that Spelman paid this woman for a longer period of time than she both she and Crick appear to agree she did, it might be a different matter. Otherwise it is a non-story and an act of scraping the very bottom of the barrel.
Now a piece on James Gray on the other hand…
Sorry to keep banging on about this, but why is James Gray still a Conservative MP given the firm line that Cameron has taken regarding Giles Chichester and Derek Conway?
Perhaps one of my Conservative readers would care to explain it?
Quentin Davies – defected
Andrew Pelling – whip withdrawn over allegations of wife-beating
Derek Conway – whip withdrawn over expenses scandal
Bob Spink – whip withdrawn before he could resign. Now a member of UKIP.
My prediction at the start of the year that Cameron would have a bad year has remained unfulfilled, but this has mainly because Labour are having such a God awful year that Cameron’s problems have faded into the background. But losing 4 MPs – 2% of the total Parliamentary Party – in less than a year suggests a shambles whichever way you look at it.
How long before we see Cameron having to sack number 5? One MP who has survived scandal up until now has been James Gray. But for how long? The Mail reports:
Only last month, MPs of all parties were being urged not to hand out jobs to family members because of the scandal over Conway receiving taxpayers’ cash for his sons when they weren’t actually doing any work.
Now Gray, an ex-shadow defence spokesman, appears to have ridden roughshod over Cameron’s demand by putting Mrs Mayo on the payroll.
It is the latest twist in a sorry tale – and another act of bravado by the 53-year-old MP for North Wiltshire.
Last night he confirmed that mother-of-three Mrs Mayo, 45, was on his staff. “It is true, but I am not prepared to go into detail about my private life,” he told me.
In the wake of his split from Sarah, 53, it was disclosed he continued to pay her Â£2,400 a month from his staff allowance even though she had stopped work as his secretary two years before in order to undergo cancer treatment.
He secured permission to pay her until the terms of their separation were agreed last April. It is not known how much he is now paying Mrs Mayo.
See also: Wiltshire Gazette and Herald, Derek Conway: Shades of Gray?
If MPs do vote to committing themselves to declare it whenever they employ family members, surely this would be effectively a vote of no confidence in Michael Martin? After all, this will pre-empt his own longer term inquiry.
It should be remembered that David Maclean’s Freedom from Information Bill, which with the Labour and Conservative front benches’ initial passive assent very nearly became an act last year, came out of proposals by the Speaker Committee. If these proposals had been passed, the fallout from the Conway affair would have been worse by several degrees. Meanwhile, Maclean is part of the review being conducted by Martin – it doesn’t bode well.
As with Prescott, a lot of the criticisms of Michael Martin smacks of snobbery. Regardless of his accent however, he is a part of an establishment that is clinging desperately to the idea of Parliament being an aloof club. In short, he is emblematic of many of the problems we face in politics today.
As an alternative, how about… Ming Campbell?
Meanwhile, under the category of “MPs do love to take the piss sometimes”, here’s a heartwarming tale of a prodigal son being welcomed back into the fold (hat tip: Duncan Borrowman).
Pity those poor Conservatives who seem to be suffering from family breakdown at the moment. I can’t help but think that James Gray, Andrew Pelling and now Nigel Waterson would not be facing the problems they’ve been having if only the government offered all married couples a Â£20 a week tax bribe.
But I digress. Now that Ditherer Dave has done the decent thing and had Conway put out of his misery, the question must hangs in the air: why not James Gray? Gray, you may recall, dumped his wife while she was recovering from cancer and subsequently found himself in a selection battle. What I had forgotten until being reminded over lunch is that he too was caught out paying his estranged wife from his expenses months after she had ceased working for him.
The compassion Sir Philip Mawer feels for him in his letter (pdf) is admirable. I wonder though if anyone caught out by, for example, the tax credit system has ever received such sympathetic treatment. Fundamentally, he ended the marriage and he fiddled the system. Since Ditherer Dave has taken a hard line on Conway, why is Gray still a Conservative MP?
A few points…
Roger Gale describes the Conway incident as a “witch hunt“. One has to wonder why the Standards and Privileges Committee would do such a thing if that were the case, since if Gale is to believed surely all MPs would be liable for the same treatment. Surely mutual interest would prevent such a witch hunt from ever happening? MPs don’t look like they are in the mood to make something out of nothing at the moment, particularly given the daily grind of “sleaze” churning out of the tabloid press on a daily basis. Plus, if Conway is being persecuted, why the apology? Why doesn’t he stand his ground?
Guido is somewhat more on the money by implying that Cameron is dithering here. We’ve had the admission of guilt from Conway; why does he still have the Tory whip?
Over at Iain Dale’s Diary, Iain makes the perfectly valid point that he is not about to rat on a friend. I sympathise – really I do. But given that Iain has always been very quick to point the finger on funding scandals himself – he not only wrote the book on Labour sleaze, he’s published two editions of it – I hope he will accept some responsibility for his friend’s downfall. The reason the outcry has been so great is that unlike most of the current crop of Labour sleaze stories (but like the Abrahams and cash for peerages incidents), this is a genuine scandal. By over emphasising these, Conway’s fate to some extent has been sealed. You can’t brag about your growing influence with one hand (which I don’t question), while denying you helped create the political weather for this with the other, Iain.
Notwithstanding the fact that I’ve no doubt occasionally crossed the line, I try my best on this blog not to get carried away by ‘sleaze’ – not least of all because I happen to think the general Lib Dem attitude to our own recent funding scandal is a mite complacent. We should be wary of enjoying these too much because we end up creating impossible standards that no-one can live by. People like Wendy Alexander, Alan Johnson and yes, possibly even Peter Hain (haven’t made my mind up fully on that one – as cock ups go, this was a pretty extreme case), ought to be able to pay a fine and move on. The idea that ministerial careers should be destroyed for the misreporting of a few hundred quid is absurd.
Yesterday, the media got itself into a tizzy over a story about Alan Johnson that I’m pleased to see most Lib Dem bloggers seem entirely unimpressed by.
Today, Derek Conway MP has been suspended from Parliament for two weeks for apparently defrauding the taxpayer out of Â£40,000 to pay his kid’s pocket money at university. That’s ignoring the Â£22,000 he claims for a second home despite his constituency being 12 miles from Westminster (hat tip: Duncan Borrowman).
There does seem to be a certain level of hypocrisy at work here. Government ministers are being hounded, and in one case hounded out of office for not taking the law on donations seriously enough and being a bit stupid, but even in Hain’s case there doesn’t appear to have been any serious corruption. Meanwhile Conway appears to have been lining his own pockets without the media paying any attention until now. This isn’t hubris or incompetence but good old fashioned corruption. Shamefully, it took a BNP member to issue the complaint (anyone know if Michael Barnbrook is any relation to gay porn film-maker Richard?).
If Hain’s cock up was severe enough to lose him his job (and I’m not saying it wasn’t), then Conway’s behaviour warrants far greater punishment. If any sleaze scandal ought to involve Scotland Yard, it’s this one.
At the very least, will Cameron withdraw the whip and force him to be deselected?
UPDATE: I’ve been asked to clarify that Conway hasn’t actually been suspended from Parliament yet.
It would emerge that the aforementioned Cllr Brian Gordon has got into trouble before for comparing immigrants to garbage.
Meanwhile, Davey Cameron himself is in hot water for breaching Parliamentary Standards. Presumably heads will roll in his office? Don’t hold your breath.
That non-partisan Guido Fawkes, who fearlessly attacks all political sleaze and flummery, has more on the Cameron story. Oh no, hang on, he doesn’t.
UPDATE: Guido has now grudgingly acknowledged Cameron’s misconduct, but only in the contest of having another (yawn!) go at Lord Levy. To be fair though, he’s been busy finding out scoops like ex-Progress Director Robert Philpot becoming Peter Hain’s SpAd, a mere four months after the event. The New Media is so damned cutting edge, isn’t it?