Friday, 17 May 2013
Let's face it: If you were forced into a building filled with as many politicians as the Palace of Westminster contains you'd probably need a drink or two to get by, too.
That is not the sort of comment likely to endear itself to Alcohol Concern, which has conducted a survey of MPs revealing levels of alcohol abuse which it claims would warrant "immediate action" in any other workplace environment.
Parliament is not any other workplace environment. It is a building lubricated by booze and populated by an elite species whose business is eased by alcohol. From red-nosed MPs to their earnest young researchers living the dream, often fresh out of university, a pint or two here or there helps make the wheels go round.
Let's not get carried away here. The truth is the parliamentary drinking culture of yesteryear has died out - literally, in some sad cases. The big shift came when the Commons' sitting hours shifted to more 'normal' working times. Since then there has not been interminably long waits for divisions in the evenings; the gaps between votes are filled meeting crisply-suited lobbyists in the atrium of Portcullis House at 3pm in the afternoon, instead of in the bars or on the terrace with a pint of lager in hand.
This shift towards civilization has diminished, but not eradicated, the problem. For our elected representatives whose constituencies are many hundreds of miles from London, the capital can be a lonely place where they are banished from Monday to Thursday each week. Their cosy family life is put on hold as they are given free rein in parliament. No wonder the bars of Westminster are a tempting place for politicians to spend their time.
It's odd that the proportion of Labour MPs worrying about too many hangovers in Westminster is much higher than the other parties; 31% of opposition MPs wring their hands about the issue, compared to 20% of Conservative and 19% of Liberal Democrat MPs. This may be because of the old Labour guard maintaining a loyal presence in its traditional Westminster watering hole. The Tories' equivalent was converted into a nursery for parliamentary toddlers a few years back.
Westminster has changed. The no-holds-barred hard-drinking culture of yesteryear has evaporated and been replaced with a more family-friendly work ethic. Still, politics is politics: it's a way of life where earnest conversations over a gin and tonic are just as much a part of the working day as meeting grumpy voters in Central Lobby or asking questions in the Commons chamber.
Politics is a talking game. That a quarter of MPs think there is an unhealthy drinking culture in parliament will be, for most of those propping up Westminster's bars, just something else to talk about before necking their next pint.
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
This week's row about the EU referendum is getting so convoluted it's starting to feel as if this is an aberration from the norm. It is not. Endemic rebelliousness on the Conservative backbenches is here to stay even if the Tories change their leader, experts have warned.
Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart of the University of Nottingham, who spend their days monitoring exactly how much clout the whips have, have updated their analysis of party discipline so far in the current parliament. Their conclusion, in simple terms, is: what party discipline?
We remain well on course to notch up the most rebellious parliament since the Second World War. There were 61 rebellions by government MPs in the 2012/13 session. And there were rebellions by coalition MPs in 27% of all the votes held. That is actually a substantial decrease from the 2010/2 session, when the rate was 44%. The fall is simply a reflection of the ridiculously high levels of indiscipline seen then, though. Rates of rebellion remain very, very high.
A lot of this could be blamed on the coalition. That is understandable. It is a factor in this week's European nightmare, Cowley and Stuart explained at an event in London this morning, but it is not the decisive one. "Europe keeps coming, it's like a bad curry," according to Cowley. Its noxious flavours reappear again and again the morning after, he explained. Just like the Tories' European problem.
What really matters is the potential behaviour of rebels in the future. Careful analysis has revealed what makes a rebel isn't how marginal your seat it is - there is just no trend there. Being a man rather than a woman might have something to do with it, but it's proved very difficult to work out why a female MP is much less likely to rebel than a male one. The real certainty only comes when forecasting whether MPs, once they begin rebelling, can ever really stop. The answer is: they can't.
MPs become addicted to rebelling, according to Cowley and Stuart. Look at the behaviour of Tory backbenchers under John Major's leadership, when a slimmer majority didn't affect their discipline one jot. Once off the leash, they're unlikely to come back.
This poses a potential problem for Cameron if the Tories do manage to scrape together a slim overall majority at the next general election. For whatever reason, 60% of rebelling Tories are from the party's 2010 intake. A new generation of independent-minded Conservatives have abandoned new MPs' usual habit of being acquiescent and skipped straight to the rabid-out-of-control category.
Cowley and Stuart have been scratching their heads trying to work out what is driving this trend. It may have something to do with the ideological breadth of the party, the constraints of coalition government combined with the lack of manifesto constraint. It may be a result of worries about their career prospects, or their desire to be different; it may even be the result of a culture change in the way we do politics. Whatever the reason for the shift, it is happening. While it is not good news for the Conservatives now, it will definitely not be good news for them after the next election, either.
Top ten most rebellious MPs (number of times voted against whips in 2012/13 / total this parliament)
Philip Hollobone (106 / 129)
Philip Davies (68 / 85)
David Nuttall (74 / 88)
Peter Bone (56 / 68)
Mark Reckless (34 / 46)
David Davis (27/ 39)
Christopher Chope (48 / 59)
William Cash (41 / 51)
Greg Mulholland (27 / 37)
Zac Goldsmith (19 / 29)
Tuesday, 7 May 2013
This year's Queen's Speech is going to be right-wing, controversial and could - while everyone is distracted - even change the country.
All eyes will be on the coalition's penultimate Queen's Speech to see how David Cameron and Nick Clegg will respond to last week's local elections.
The rise of Ukip is likely to be met with a series of right-wing policies. A bill on immigration could be joined by legislation on anti-social behaviour, police complaints and even public order legislation toughening up the powers of the police in order to beef up the Conservatives' credentials in the fight against Nigel Farage. A draft bill setting up the EU referendum is plausible, although this may not appear until 2014. The Lib Dems' biggest contribution is in what they are blocking: the communications data bill, for example, which Clegg has made very clear isn't going to happen.
Also unlikely to feature are moves to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol or plain packing for cigarettes. These were hotly anticipated public health reforms but appear to have dwindled in the lead-up to the Speech. An announcement by the prime minister in January about plans to shake up the legislation governing co-operatives may also not lead to much, either.
After their ambitious programme of reform legislated on in their first three years in power the coalition is concentrating on implementation rather than introducing drastic new changes. Despite this, there will be a surprising amount of controversy generated this year. The ongoing struggle over the energy bill, an antagonistic bill taking on political propaganda from local authorities and legislation paving the way for HS2 will all generate intense opposition. We might be nearer the end than the beginning, but this government still has a bit of bite left in it.
There's a strong chance the constitution could be in for a little more tinkering, too. William Hague has promised primary legislation to outline the rules governing the deployment of Britain's armed forces. Wales could find itself in line for more money-raising powers in the next round of devolution. And ambitious stalled goals like reforming party funding could be set to receive some renewed attention, too.
The most significant changes will come from three pieces of legislation. The care support bill, finally resolving the impasse over the funding of care which has deadlocked the issue in Westminster for years, will deservedly generate headlines. Then there's the pensions bill, which will push through the simplification of the pensions system in a way which will eventually affect most of us. Finally comes a consumer rights bill. It doesn't matter that this was precipitated by a looming deadline to comply with an EU directive. When passed, reluctantly or not, the current state of play will be consolidated and strengthened. When we get on the end of a dodgy deal - and it happens to all of us at some stage - this will make a real difference.
Our focus will be on the politics, though, as the coalition unveils its agenda for the next 12 months. By this time next year the unravelling of this government will be well and truly underway. So if Cameron and Clegg really want to start any major new projects, this Queen's Speech is their last chance to do so.