Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Prime Ministers and Parliaments

Having two of each in this country is getting a bit messy, slightly strange and is surely unsustainable for any length of time.

The two Prime Ministers bit is the one in most urgent need of attention. Her Majesty's Government appears to have carried the day on the ID cards bill. A speech given by the Home Secterary, Deputy Prime Minister, PM No 2 linking ID cards to the fight against terrorism was used to bolster the case in the absence of PM No 1. It's all a bit odd. The long-running saga of the Blair-Brown fight which has for years now featured two grown men who couldn't agree about a matter as basic as who should actually be Prime Minister - which always struck me as being a bit dysfunctional, to say the least. But now they seem to have settled this matter, it's distinctly weird. Brown has been given leeway to speak on matters out of his brief and he has used the opportunity to not only re-inforce the Blair line on ID cards - he seems to be wearing some of Blair's clothes in a quite literal fashion. (Couldn't find a photo, I'm afraid but he's been to the same shop as Blair and got pink glossy ties, the white shirts and a suit that doesn't look like he slept in it or anything. Honestly - I saw him on the telly.)

This can't go on for eighteen months, as Blair seems to think it will, can it? As either of the Davids Steel and Owen can testify, political double-acts have a unique capacity for looking really quite silly, and in the short time this one's been with us, it clearly has the potential to be very silly indeed. On top of that, and apart from the fact that this hardly follows constitutional convention, some on the left are already having a go at Gordon Brown for the way he's doing the job he hasn't quite got yet. There was even a rumour of a stalking horse running against Brown, in which case we are to be treated once again to the spectacle of Labour's left being reminded that their principle function in political life is to be attacked by the leadership. Deja vu all over again.

Anyway, up here where we already have Brown rule by proxy via the Scottish Executive, it's getting into a bit of a mess. Some in the Scottish Labour party, already antipathetic towards being in coalition with the Lib Dems are absolutely seething after their surprise victory in the Dumfermline and West Fife by-election.
"The latest onslaught on the coalition was triggered by the LibDems' attack on the Scottish Executive's record during the by-election campaign. Labour was particularly incensed by the focus on the Forth road bridge tolls and the downgrading of the Queen Margaret Hospital: both are responsibilities of the executive on which LibDem ministers have key roles, and were part of the decision-making process."
The Liberals have a reputation for running unscrupulous hypocritical campaigns at the local level - and this one did nothing to counter that, to put it mildly. Liberals in Scotland frequently cite their wonderful, beneficient performance in the coalition government during elections campaigns for either Holyrood or Westminster. But in this case, they used the performance of the Scottish Executive against the Labour candidate - doubly hypocritical when you consider that the minister responsible for the bridge toll they made such a fuss about is a Liberal Democrat.

Jimmy Hood, the MP for Lanark and Hamilton East MP, claimed there was now a majority in favour of breaking with the Lib Dems and forming a minority administration, which would be hardly surprising. There's a strong feeling that the recent improvement in the Lib Dems' fortunes north of the border is due in no small part to their habit of boasting of their successes in coalition government but being very reluctant to be associated with any of its failings. But that Rennie and the rest of the Liberal campaign were able to get away with this is surely down in part to a genuine confusion in our present constitutional settlement with regards to the role of MPs and MSPs? Rennie was elected promising to solve problems that are the responsibility of the Liberals in Hollyrood as well as Labour and over which he will have absolutely no power over as a member of the Westminster Parliament - and it tends to raise again the question of what Scottish MPs in Westminster are actually for? They don't seem to have much to do - except be lobby-fodder to pass controversial legislation that won't affect their constituents, only those in England and Wales.

There's trouble ahead if they don't sort this out. There's too many Scottish MPs anyway and should Brown have to depend on them in government too often - or indeed for a working majority - the present arrangement is unlikely to stand the strain. There's some merit in the idea that Scottish MPs should agree not to vote on exclusively English matters, otherwise an unstable situation will make the calls for further constitutional change irresistable.

And it's the unstable relationship at the heart of our government that makes me wonder if Brown will ever get to the stage of having a majority of his own, rather than inheriting Blair's. The longer Brown acts as PM No 2, the more likely he is to be associated with the whiff of decay that surrounds this government and the more explicitly he steps outside his sphere of ministerial responsibility, the more he will be identified with policies that are unpopular with the party.

There's this nagging feeling with Brown, and you suspect sometimes he glimpses it too - that his star may have passed. Not an entirely rational position because polling evidence would tend to suggest that a Brown-led Labour party would defeat a Cameron-led Conservative party in a General Election. But when you get various 'friends-of-Gordon' in the Labour party and the press telling you that he's misunderstood, he's really a warm, jolly sort, it reminds me that the same sort of things were said about Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Not a good omen.

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