What to watch out for in Parliament in 2013
- 1 January 2013
- From the section UK Politics
There's been a Drunken Parliament, a Mad Parliament, an Addled Parliament and even a Devil's Parliament* - and I'm starting to suspect that this one may be remembered as the Surprise Parliament.
Since 2010 the Commons and the Lords have both shown an ability and willingness to defy the will of government and spring nasty surprises on ministers.
Tory backbenchers have sided with Labour to scupper Lords reform and vote for a freeze in the EU budget. Lib Dems are pledged to vote against a review of parliamentary boundaries, in the coalition's worst-yet internal spat, cross party alliances over press regulation, internet monitoring and even drugs policy are building,
Over in the Lords, government defeats are becoming routine events. And my prediction for 2013 is that they will spring even more surprises - and do so from new and unexpected angles.
Money, Money, Money
But first, the economy. Everyone in Westminster believes the outcome of the next election will depend on whether it has perked up. At the moment the coalition can muster a Commons majority for its central economic programme, but one of the big emerging factors in the Commons is the seeping realisation among Conservatives that it may well not do so.
Whether you blame George Osborne, the eurozone or a vengeful deity, the fact is that many Tory backbenchers are getting twitchy. This may not show up in the chamber in a big way for quite a while, not least because much of the chancellor's next Budget, due on 20 March, was effectively pre-announced in the Autumn Statement, and had a reasonable reception.
And given that there probably won't be any further set-piece economic announcements until next year's Autumn Statement, disquiet probably won't surface till then - and of course it may never do so, if the chancellor can demonstrate unequivocal progress. But keep an eye out for the subtle signs - complaints about sluggish bank lending and helpful suggestions about promoting investment, that are really veiled criticisms of the Treasury and its boss.
One focus for Mr Osborne's (startlingly venomous) Tory critics may be the arrival of Lord Deighton, who, fresh from his triumphs delivering the London Olympics, is due to start work as infrastructure minister in the Treasury in January. Insofar as there is an alternative Tory economic strategy, it seems to revolve around finding more money for infrastructure investment (by cutting spending elsewhere, not by borrowing) and kick-starting the economy with massive new construction projects.
So the in-house Conservative critics will watch Lord Deighton's ringmastering of new investment with considerable interest, and a mind to use his performance in evidence against the chancellor, if he fails to meet their expectations. They want an infrastructure supremo with a licence to kill - and they don't think he's it.
The same Tories also complain (!) that Labour's economic team is not holding the chancellor's feet to the fire, and that economic debates and Treasury Questions too often seem to be a rather catty eye-scratching personal battle between Messrs Osborne and Balls. One question lurking in a number of Labour minds is whether they can craft an economic message capable of attracting voters, while the man delivering is a key architect of New Labour's economic policies.
I'm not sure I can remember a time when both the chancellor and his shadow have had to be quite so careful of their internal doubters, and that's what will make the undercurrents at those Treasury Question Times so interesting.
Still it's not all economics. A number of current parliamentary sagas will continue into January. First the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will be back before the Lords - and the Conservatives have accepted the inevitable will happen.
A Lab-Lib amendment will finally kill their hopes of redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries before the next election, and if it is carried we will see the first instance of the coalition parties - including all the ministers - voting against each other, first in the Lords, and then in the Commons, when MPs are invited to consider the Lords amendments to the Bill.
Since the boundary changes are thought to be worth around 20 seats to the Conservatives at the next election, this could deal a serious blow to Tory hopes at the 2015 election, and they know it. So will the coalition be able to pick itself up, dust itself down and carry on as if nothing has happened? Or will that moment expose the first big crack in the Con-Lib Dem relationship?
Press and prying
There could be a few other opportunities for the two governing parties to vote against each other. Press regulation may be one issue - although there seem to be signs of agreement breaking out on that one.
Then there's the "snoopers' charter" - aka the Communications Data Bill - which would enable the government to monitor communications over the internet. Lib Dems may well vote with Labour on that one.
Watch out for senior Tory Tim Yeo's amendment to the Energy Bill, to add a carbon intensity target for the energy industry, to cap the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by energy generation. He could lead an alliance of green Tories, Lib Dems and Labour to defeat his own party leadership. Being a canny operator he'll put down a new clause at the Report Stage of the Bill, where Commons rules will give it priority for debate, so expect the action to flare up in late February or early March.
And then there's gay marriage - sorry, marriage equality. The word is that a bill along the lines set out by equalities minister Maria Miller may arrive in the Commons in January. This whole issue is stirring up huge amounts of angst on the Tory benches.
Never mind the substance, feel the internal politics - this plays to the stereotypes backbench traditionalists and Cameroon loyalists hold about each other: flighty metropolitan liberals v social dinosaurs.
That is before you get on to criticisms about timing and handling. Several Conservatives have mentioned fears that their activists will be pre-occupied with gay marriage just when they'll be needed to fight the County Council elections, in May.
Those elections will be another important political moment. They're a big test of public opinion and the results will be picked over with great intensity.
Will ex-Lib Dems who switched to Labour over Nick Clegg's Coalition deal with the Tories stick with Ed Miliband? Will there be any crumb of comfort for the Lib Dems, who're just beginning to believe the worst of their electoral implosion may be over?
Will UKIP's opinion poll surge translate into real votes, and real seats? Because if it does, the pressure on David Cameron will redouble.
Which brings me to Europe. At some point, Mr Cameron may have to seek parliamentary approval for a deal on the EU budget (assuming the EU heads of government actually manage to agree one). If he does not do so of his own accord, dissident backbenchers may force him to the wicket, by obtaining a debate through the Backbench Business Committee.
The Halloween rebellion in which Labour sided with Tory rebels to insist that Britain's contribution should be frozen has upped the stakes. If Mr Cameron emerges from the negotiations with anything less, a significant faction on his own benches will make trouble - and Labour may well back them, if only on the principle that the job of an opposition is to, er, oppose. I'm not sure anyone knows quite what would happen if the prime minister lost.
But that is only one strand of the tangled euro-knot the coalition and the Conservative Party have to unravel. The long-term issue of the UK's relationship with the EU just won't go away. Mr Cameron has promised his MPs a speech - scheduled for mid-January - in which he will set out how he plans to tackle Europe.
In a frenzy of meetings and factional conclaves, many of his backbenchers have been trying to push him towards holding a referendum before the next election. Where once they would have settled for the promise of a referendum in, say, 2016, they now believe the pace of EU integration is so rapid that a vote is needed in the next couple of years - and they quite fancy trying to skewer the Lib Dems on the issue.
Given that, not long ago, an in-out referendum was Liberal Democrat policy, this might not be a problem for the coalition, Tory Eurosceptics insist. You can almost hear the butter in their mouths freezing solid.
Also in May, there'll be a new legislative programme announced in the Queen's Speech. At this stage it's still being constructed - but I'm told there's stiff competition to get bills in… although some backbenchers wonder if there will be much to set the blood pounding.
Anything Dave can do, Nick can do….too
One new development the Lib Dems will like is that Nick Clegg will get a new prime-time stage on which to perform. The DPM will be invited to be questioned by the Commons Liaison Committee - the super-committee of Select Committee Chairs which has questioned prime ministers since Tony Blair first agreed to face regular cross-examination.
At the moment the only select committees he appears before are the ones concerned with his constitutional reform brief - given his across-the-board responsibilities he is wary of ending up as a full-time hostile witness, endlessly being summoned before every committee.
But his refusal to appear before the Environmental Audit Committee, after representing Britain at the last round of climate change talks, has ruffled feathers. It could be fun, but then, that's what I thought about the prime minister doing the Liaison Committee, and that became an earnest snore-athon. This, too, may be more fun in theory than it turns out to be in practice.
House in order?
By the end of 2013, the Commons is supposed to put a new structure in place for deciding its agenda - a House Business Committee. This, I gather, is the focus of a titanic and intricate behind-the-scenes struggle, involving the government, backbench activists who want less dominance by the whips, the Speaker, and the clerks. All have considerable interest in the way the Commons orders its business.
The original thought, part of the Wright Reforms approved by MPs in 2010, just before the election, was that government was too dominant, and there should be a body to press the interests of backbench MPs, insisting, for example, that sufficient time be allocated for the crucial report stage of bills.
This all sounds fine and dandy, but there are fears that the result will be a body that formalised the "usual channel" negotiations between the parties, by which Commons business is currently carved up - the whips and business managers, plus a few compliant establishment types to give a veneer of consultation to business as usual.
There's talk that the Speaker, or perhaps the Deputy Speaker, the chairman of Ways and Means, might chair the body, but that could get complicated, because the idea is that the whole House should have a vote every week on the proposed agenda, and a chance to amend it, if they're not satisfied.
Could the Speaker chair a debate on amending the product of his own committee? Interestingly all these questions are being investigated by a select committee - not Charles Walker's Procedure Committee, but Graham Allen's Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Could an inter-committee turf war add to this entertaining cocktail?
Finally, three new arrivals on the Commons scene, who, it is devoutly hoped, will not hit the headlines. Peter Jinman, Walter Rader and Sharon Darcy (no relation) are the lay members of the Standards Committee, (MPs having voted to have separate committees to deal with standards issues and privileges issues - the old Standards and Privileges Committee is being cut in half, so to speak) there to help guarantee public confidence in the policing of parliamentary ethics.
They will only become prominent if they decide that the committee has delivered a bad verdict - they don't have a vote in its proceedings, but the committee cannot vote without them, and they have the right to attach comments to any of its reports.
So, for example, if they decide that the Standards Committee has delivered a verdict tainted by party bias - pursuing a member or letting them off for party reasons, they can say so. And if they do, it is hard to see how MPs could accept the recommendations of the report in question.
So if you read their names in the papers, the chances are, the system has failed.
* The Drunken Parliament was the Scottish Parliament which met after the Restoration in 1661. The Mad Parliament was a meeting of barons in Oxford in 1258. The Addled Parliament of 1614 passed no acts and was so named because none of its eggs hatched. And the Devil's Parliament of 1459 attainted the Duke of York and his son, the future Edward IV for treason, during the Wars of the Roses. (All these facts appear in Robert Rogers' invaluable collection of parliamentary lore, Order! Order!)