Friday, February 29, 2008

Cameron and Clegg aim to beat the system

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 1 March 2008.


A common phenomenon in US presidential elections is the emergence of candidates who are running not so much against an individual opponent, but against the whole political system.

Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer who went from obscurity to the White House in 1976 on the back of the Watergate scandal, is perhaps the best example of an outsider who successfully ran “against Washington.”

In the current contest, both Barack Obama and to a lesser extent John McCain are attempting the same trick, positioning themselves against rather tired and discredited party establishments.

It’s the kind of thing that’s never really caught on over here. But as the reputation of Parliament continues to plummet in public esteem, it may not be very long before it does.

Over the past week, the ongoing repercussions of the Derek Conway affair have continued to cast a shadow over Westminster, with the Speaker Michael Martin being dragged into the controversy over MPs expenses.

It emerged that he had claimed £17,000 a year for a home in Scotland on which the mortgage had already been paid off, while his wife claimed more than £4,000 in taxi expenses since May 2004.

The eventual fate of Mr Martin – and the jockeying for position going on among the potential candidates to succeed him – will doubtless be another column for another day.

For now, the main interest for me lies in how the main opposition parties have been seeking to exploit the growing public unease about MPs’ conduct, and how this might influence the next election.

Some commentators were surprised that Tory leader David Cameron took internal House of Commons issues as his theme for Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

He kicked off by asking MPs’ pay, followed-up on the government’s refusal to grant referendum on the EU reform treaty, and finally called on Gordon Brown to agree to a televised debate at election time.

For once, Mr Brown was thought to have got the better of the exchange, but the more perceptive observers of the Westminster scene recognised the logic behind what Mr Cameron was up to.

It is this. Like Mr Obama across the pond, he is positioning himself to run at the next election not just against Mr Brown, but against the whole sleazy old establishment.

Said one commentator: “Cameron was trying to suggest he is on the side of those with their noses pressed up against the Westminster window who dislike what they see going on inside.

“Did it work for the Tories? A Westminster insider would answer no. I suspect, however, that if it was shown to a focus group of civilians they would understand it much more easily.”

This is potentially a rich seam for Mr Cameron up against a rather shop-soiled government that, by the time of the next election, will have been in power for half a generation.

If a public head of steam starts to get up in favour of major reform of our parliamentary institutions, the Tory leader is well-placed to ensure that he is in the vanguard.

But so, too, of course, is Nick Clegg, whose party has always led the way in championing political reform and who is also clearly seeking to “run against Westminster.”

This week, the Lib Dem leader launched an outspoken attack on what he called “clapped out 19th century practices” after Mr Martin refused to select his amendment in the debate over the EU reform treaty.

Mr Martin, as is his wont, seemed to take it rather personally, warning Mr Clegg to “be careful where you go with that,” but I don’t think he was attacking the Speaker so much as the system.

Later, his foreign affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, underlined the point by appearing to deliberately get himself thrown out of the Chamber for angrily querying Mr Martin’s ruling.

So what will the public make of it all? Well, one question that immediately springs to mind about the two opposition party leaders is whether either of them are actually convincing “outsiders.”

Both are in fact consummate insiders, both fully paid-up members of what the author and commentator Peter Oborne calls the “political class.”

Mr Cameron’s role as an adviser to Chancellor Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday is well-known. His only job outside politics was as a PR man at Carlton Television.

Mr Clegg has even less experience of life outside the “bubble.” After completing his MA, he worked for the then European Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan, before becoming an MEP in 1999 and finally an MP in 2005.

A more particular challenge for Mr Cameron is whether he can overcome the memories of the Tory sleaze of the 1990s - not least with reminders such as Mr Conway still hanging around like a bad smell.

He certainly intends to try. A flavour of the Tories’ new approach came in a letter this week from the 2005 intake of Tory MPs, almost certainly written with the leadership’s encouragement.

It calls for consideration to be given to a US-style “recall mechanism” which would enable constituents to vote on whether a misbehaving MP could be removed during the course of a Parliament.

It’s the kind of thing that not only demonstrates radical thinking, but ensures that the Tories are seen as being on the side of the people – vital for any opposition party serious about winning power.

The real sadness about all this for Labour supporters is that Mr Brown could conceivably have claimed the reform mantle for himself had he been bolder last summer.

Long before the “dodgy donations” affair, he planned to restore trust in politics by handing key powers back to Parliament – but the proposals turned out to be a damp squib.

Now, just as there was in the United States after Watergate, there appears to be a growing desire among the public for a more far-reaching spring-clean of our political system.

Mr Brown may well sympathise with that desire, but it seems certain that his two opponents will be the ones who reap the benefit.

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