No sooner had Gordon Brown declared on the steps of Downing Street on Monday that democratic renewal was at the heart of his election commitment than his promise faded away on Tuesday like a will o’ the wisp. The House had voted by a large margin 5 weeks ago to set up an elected Back-Bench Business Committee to take from the Executive control of all non-government business on the floor of the House. All that was required for a significant advance in parliamentary democracy was for the Government, bowing to the will of the House, to bring forward a motion to change Standing Orders in the way the House had decreed.
The Government failed to do that for 5 weeks. Now in the last few hours and days before Parliament is dissolved – the so-called wash-up period when everything left to the last moment is rushed through in a last-minute frenzy – the Government has tabled the necessary motion, which can be subject to amendment by any M.P. Surprise, surprise, 4 M.P.s moved amendments which mean that the matter has to be debated for up to 1.5 hours before it can be voted on (notwithstanding that it has already been fully debated and voted on only a few weeks ago). Harriet Harman, as Leader of the House, then announces today that the Government cannot find the time to provide for the one-and-a-half hour debate – though the Government can find the time for a debate and vote on the Digital Economy Bill which has been rushed through without proper discussion and is extremely contentious.
The democratic reform of parliament is thus snuffed out and has to await the new Government after the election when the balance of forces is anyone’s guess. But there is a twist to this story of skulduggery. Tony Wright, the chair of the select committee which recommended this reform, wrote to the 4 MPs (significantly all Labour) asking them to withdraw their amendments so that the new Standing Orders could be approved. One of them, Hilary Armstrong, emailed back to say that she wasn’t at Westminster, but had forwarded his request to the Whips. That let the cat out of the bag. She had been put up to it by the Whips, and as everyone knows the Whips don’t take initiatives like this without the full knowledge and blessing of No.10.
So on Monday the PM gave full-hearted support to parliamentary reform at the front door of No.10, and then on Tuesday firmly squelched it through the back door. No wonder the public are cynical about political promises – from all parties.