Bob Diamond, the chief executive of Barclays bank, is not a man inclined to bend to the public mood. ‘There was a period of remorse and apology for banks,’ he told MPs this time last year. ‘I think that period needs to be over.’ His remarks presaged the coming confrontation between Diamond and Parliament over the Barclays bonus pool. He may think the bankers’ period of remorse and apology should be over but MPs and the public do not.
The Labour leadership, sensing a political opening, is determined to have the Barclays bonuses debated on the floor of the House. We will soon find out where this Diamond scores on the Mohs scale of hardness. Stephen Hester, the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, renounced his bonus rather than have it be the subject of a vote in Parliament. Diamond is likely to face the same choice. Barclays, unlike RBS, is not majority state-owned, but it was kept going by an implicit state guarantee and it still benefits from one — or so an intellectual ally of Ed Miliband argues. That makes its behaviour an appropriate subject on which Parliament can express a view.
A few years ago a clash between a master of the universe and Parliament would have been an uneven contest. Parliament was an institution in decline, its powers draining away to the executive, Brussels and the courts. The Commons chamber even seemed at risk of ceasing to be the forum for national debate. The BBC consigned Yesterday in Parliament to the chamber of broadcasting relics, Radio 4 Long Wave, where it joined Test Match Special and The Daily Service. But rather like Test Match Special, Parliament is undergoing a period of revival, what one might term a new golden age. To be sure, there are no orators to match Pitt or Fox, but since the last election the Commons has reasserted itself. It is once more the cockpit of the nation. For the first time in 20 years, it seems to be growing in power and influence.
Perhaps the first example of the House’s re-emergence was its refusal to accept a European Court of Human Rights ruling that prisoners should be allowed to vote. Initially, David Cameron decided that Britain had no choice but to comply with the decision, even though he thought it wrongheaded. Parliament thought otherwise. A declaratory Commons vote in February 2011 led the government to appeal against the verdict. This vote may well have set in motion the process by which Britain leaves the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg court: not bad for a backbench motion.
The Commons also flexed its muscles when it came to News International and the phone-hacking affair. In a sign of the renewed power of the parliamentary bully pulpit, the mere threat of a Commons vote on News International’s proposal to take full control of BSkyB was enough to persuade the Murdochs to pull the bid. The Murdochs again found themselves on the wrong side of a newly assertive Parliament when they declined to attend a select committee hearing into phone hacking. In a sign of the institution’s growing self-confidence, the committee responded by reviving its right to summon witnesses.
In historical terms, though, the most important recent parliamentary vote was on the EU referendum motion. At first glance, this seems odd. It was a non-binding backbench measure, and it did not pass — indeed, it never had a chance of doing so, given that both Labour and the government were opposed. But when 81 Tory MPs defied a three-line whip and voted for it, their actions changed the calculus in No. 10 about how to handle the European issue. It was this new approach that led to Cameron vetoing a proposed EU treaty back in December.
Several factors have combined to breathe new life into parliament. First, no party has a majority in either house. When Ed Miliband was wandering the streets of Davos debating whether to force a Commons vote on Hester’s bonus, he knew that the motion would have a good chance of gaining the support of the Liberal Democrats, splitting the coalition and giving Labour a chance of victory.
Then there is the creative destruction wreaked by the expenses scandal. At the last election, the scandal contributed to a huge turnover of MPs. Those who arrived in 2010 are acutely sensitive to the charge that they are just as bad as the last lot. In general, therefore, they are more independent-minded than their predecessors. Forty-seven per cent of the Tory MPs elected in 2010 have already rebelled. Nor did the members who survived the expenses scandal remain unchanged. When the public think the letters MP after your name are a mark of dishonour, there is no longer any point in staying in Parliament for the prestige; even for veteran parliamentarians, status now means you have to achieve something. The breakneck pace of the new government’s first months in office owed much to this new mood.
But perhaps the most important reason for the revival of Parliament is that the politicians themselves have begun to appreciate it again. For years, the trendy notion that Britain was a ‘young country’ led to ambitious types turning their noses up at Parliament and its traditions. One senses now a greater understanding of its place in the constitution.
The next session will see an intense debate about Parliament’s role and the balance between its two chambers. The coalition intends to make the House of Lords 20 per cent elected, with more elected members in the coming years if Parliament wishes it. Already, other items in the government’s legislative plans are being scrapped or delayed to clear the necessary parliamentary time for this bill.
On this issue the executive can confidently expect an extremely hard time from the legislature. We might not find a 21st-century version of the Enoch Powell–Michael Foot double act that defeated Dick Crossman’s plans for Lords reform. But we will see MPs defending the rights and prerogatives of the Commons with far more vigour and conviction than they would have had just a few short years ago.