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Nick Cohen
Tuesday 6th July 2010
A Deceitful Reform

The quid pro quo for Tories accepting the AV system is to wrap it up with a package which will cut the number of Parliamentary constituencies. Nick Clegg was full of wind and self-righteousnes when he commended it to the Commons yesterday.

 Every Member of this House was elected knowing that this Parliament must be unlike any other-that we have a unique duty to restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times-and if anything was clear at the general election it was that more and more people realised that our political system was broken and needs to be fixed. They want us to clean up politics. They want to be able to hold us properly to account. So the Government have set out an ambitious programme for political renewal, transferring power away from the Executive to empower Parliament, and away from Parliament to empower people.

 As I explained yesterday, AV is a system no one - including Mr Clegg - believes in because in landslide elections it will mean the winning party's seat total is even greater than under first-past-the-post, and the chances of powerful governments meeting strong opposition will diminish accordingly. But what about cutting the number of constituencies? I am neutral on the subject, but, obviously, if Mr Clegg is serious about "transferring powers from the executive" and holding ministers "properly to account," then a fall in the number of MPs must be accompanied by a fall in the number of ministers, junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. Of course it must because - and I am sure you don't need me to tell you this - if it does not then the size of the payroll vote will be unchanged while the number of potentially rebellious government backbenchers and opposition MPs will be reduced. The whips will have the whip hand.

 The Labour MP Chris Bryant made this very point.

"If one were to cut the number of MPs but keep the same number of Government Ministers, as is laid down in statute, one would have increased the stranglehold of the Government over the House. If the Deputy Prime Minister is to proceed with the cut, will he undertake to cut the number of Ministers, and if so, could he cut it by 22?

Far from promising to cut ministers along with MPs, Clegg waffled.

 "The key question is whether the package of reform increases the power of Parliament to hold the Executive to account. That is the fundamental issue of principle which members of the Labour party, when they were in favour of political reform, used to understand. This package of reform unambiguously puts this Parliament back in the driving seat."

Well no it doesn't, if the relative strength of the payroll vote increases. The Conservative MP Christopher Chope tried again.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will he reconsider the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)? If the right hon. Gentleman's avowed intent is to give more power to Parliament at the expense of the Government, how can it be right to maintain the current number of Ministers while reducing the number of MPs who hold them to account?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman. He is a long-serving Member who will always hold any Government's feet to the fire, and I respect him for that and pay tribute to him-

Hon. Members: Answer!

Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise- [ Interruption. ] Order. There is simply too much noise in the Chamber. The House must behave in a more seemly fashion.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also agree, however, that the measures that we have announced today will strengthen the role of Parliament in holding the Executive to account. They will strengthen the power of this House to throw out a Government through a motion of no confidence, and if a Government are not re-formed within 14 days there will be a general election and a Dissolution of the House. That seems to me to be a very significant shift that takes power away from the Prime Minister, which has never been done before, and gives more power to the House. It is something that I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

So, no, he would not answer the question. And his changing of the subject into a discussion of no-confidence motions was ludicrous because he was simply guaranteeing the Commons could keep a power it already had, and he and Cameron had tried to take from it.

As things stand, the "reform" of Parliament will lead to the executive growing ever mightier, and Clegg becoming ever more rapidly one of the great English hypocrites of our age.

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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