Ken Clarke was apparently on traditional barnstorming form in the Commons yesterday. But then Clarke against Ian Pearson has a rather lop-sided look to it. This is a genuine problem that Brown has had since ascending to the Premiership – his cabinet has been woefully thin on Commons presence. The ‘big beasts’ of the Brown administration – the Milibands, Darling, Cooper, Balls and the like – are not particularly impressive Commons performers in the Heseltine/Clarke/Howard mould – or even the Reid/Blunkett/Prescott/Cook mould. Brown himself usually comes off second best at PMQs, where his training as Chancellor has left him prone to sorghum yield statistics and an inability to change direction swiftly.
Of course, there is now a reassuring competent performer back in the Cabinet in the form of Peter Mandelson. He’s a very effective debater, with a slightly comic-book sinuousness and pantomime villain sinister quality – it’s a shame he shaved of his moustache, as he can’t now twirl it in a dastardly fashion. But, of course, he’s not in the Commons. No more is Shriti Vadera, who has been Brown’s primary adviser for years. Nor is the new City Minister Lord Myners. Lord West, Lord Jones – whenever Brown has looked for talent he has had to do so outside the confines of his Parliamentary party. This is understandable on sheer quality grounds, but, as David Cameron says, it’s not a good thing for democracy.
It is, however, symptomatic of Labour’s general contempt for Parliament. Both Brown and Blair have appalling voting and attendance records; both have presided over a culture where nothing is ever announced in the chamber; neither have any respect for the role of the Commons in Government, seeing it as a nuisance at best. The return of Mandelson is, to some extent, an exception to the general rule here, given that he was an MP and has been parachuted back in again as an expert politician. But the proper place for the Executive is predominantly within the Commons where they can be held to account. The debasement of the Upper House by this Government has all but emasculated it as a genuine revisional chamber – and the willingness of Labour peers to accept cash in return for amending legislation is, as FA said, less of a surprise than a confirmation.
It is to be hoped that Labour’s neglect of, and contempt for, Parliament is rewarded fittingly at the next election – in opposition they might just rediscover the importance of being able to hold an over-might executive to account.