Advise and Consent? It’s Time the Left Determined to End This Parade of Political Patronage
A cruel wag once said that politics was show business for ugly people. But how these less than perfect specimens love the theatre! Whether it is the twice yearly dramatics of the Chancellor’s budgets, the planted questions and easy gags of Prime Minister’s Questions or the photographs of all new leaders outside Number Ten, politicians crave the camera. It is important not to dismiss symbolism. Political theatre is important and makes for good television but not always good governance.
Perhaps the greatest theatre is the ritual parade of new ministers walking into Downing Street as a government is appointed. These days social media plays its obligatory part: in Cameron’s post-election reshuffle tweet after tweet announced appointment after appointment. The reshuffle is perhaps the most tangible of a host of Crown powers wielded by prime ministers both to personal and party political advantage. One of the worst features of the Blair years was how they were used to distract the media from political embarrassments: ministers like John Reid and Alan Johnson were moved with the frequency and care of disposable pawns on a chess board. One of the better features of Cameron’s premiership has been his willingness to allow ministers to master the intricacies of their portfolios.
He has, of course, not been perfect. Can we really say that former banker (and Trekkie) Sajid Javid was the best possible appointment as Culture Secretary? What qualifications did his predecessor Jeremy Hunt have to merit his appointment as Health Secretary? Iain Duncan Smith. Enough said.
Our system of government is not based on policy experts being placed in departments, but political appointees who manage with the vast experience of the civil service. Yet as parliament strives to become more representative of the country it governs, there is more room for expertise in ministerial office. Perhaps ministers such as John Whittingdale who - defying the traditional cursus honorum - leapt from the chair of the Culture and Media Select Committee to become the department’s Secretary of State, should be less of an exception.
There is one way we can ensure better appointments, and that is to remove the prime minister’s power to appoint ministers and give it to Parliament. How much more democratic would it be if the PM recommended rather than just appointed.
“THE PRIME MINISTER GIVETH AND THE PRIME MINISTER TAKETH AWAY. BLESSED BE THE NAME OF THE PRIME MINISTER"
A thousand Twitter memes showing an empty chamber forget that so much of Parliamentary business takes place in committees rooms. Last week Andrew Tyrie, the Treasury Committee chairman, criticised the ONS for a lack of intellectual curiosity; the week before he put David Cameron under intense scrutiny at the liaison committee. Parliament is more independent than ever. In the United States every Cabinet and a host of executive appointments are subject to the Senate’s “advise and consent”. Could a similar process not work here?
British government works at a rapid pace. We vote on Thursday, and expect a new government by the next afternoon. We are unused to the tangled negotiations of Coalition government. Defying evidence which shows smaller teams make better decisions, Cabinets have got larger and larger. Reshuffles take place over a few days with ministers facing rapid promotion or demotion. “The Prime Minister giveth and the Prime Minister taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Prime Minister,” Said Sir Humphrey.
Great theatre. Great politics. Bad government.
Reshuffles would be rarer. Appointments more considered. Mechanisms to allow more outside experts to serve could be considered. Furthermore were ministerial appointments subject to Parliamentary approval it would mean that ministers could decide what their priorities in their new roles would be; they would have - should there be a formal, timetabled process - space to learn about the challenges before they assume the responsibility. Each nominee would be questioned and give answers to their colleagues, and in fact the country. If new ministerial teams were put forward to committees as a whole it would save time, and allow members to consider whether the balance - managerial experience, policy expertise, gender, etc. - was appropriate. The frontbench could then be put forward for approval by the whole House of Commons, and even a reformed House of Lords.
It is not just ministerial appointments, the executive has vast swathes of unaccountable patronage. Parliament needs a greater role. In the 1980s Tony Benn supported elections by the Parliamentary Labour Party to the Shadow Cabinet. Jeremy Corbyn has not only kept his powers of patronage, he has used to them to cement his position. Although he has a mandate that is to confuse democracy with democratic centralism. Equally a majority party has a mandate but its leader can claim a share as the electoral front man. Competing mandates can find a harmony.
Andrew Tyrie has demonstrated that parliament can hold government to account. Yet it is extremely unlikely that a right-wing administration, which seems intent on loading the political dice in its favour, would propose this kind of reform.Will Jeremy Corbyn? I do not know but this is part of a democratic agenda that the left should embrace and promote. It is unlikely that Corbyn will ever be in a position to enact such a policy. But his successor might. A new democratic commitment to end this parade of patronage might be one way to help to inspire a dispirited party. It will not win an election but it will help us be more soundly governed.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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