Alex Massie

David Cameron, his Goats & his Pocket Boroughs

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The other day Pete mentioned David Cameron's desire to bring in outsiders to staff his government ministries, making it a Tory version of Gordon's so-called Government Of All the Talents. One can see why this must be an appealling notion. You might share it if you were charged with assembling a government from the parliamentary Conservative party. Christ, you might think, they sent me this? Bricks without straw also ran.

Now Benedict Brogan says that the Tories are thiking of creating as many as 40 new Conservative peers to stack the House of Lords with reliable Cameron votes. Again, one can see why he would want to do so even if, happily, a Conservative ministry will still be unable to command a majority in the Upper House. Happily, I say, because the Lords' revising and delaying powers will be just as important with the Tories in power as they are when Labour are in the ascendancy.

Nor, however, does Cameron's patronage end there. Brogan again, suggests that as many as 30 Tory seats may still need to select their candidates for the election: 

For all the talk of localism, the grip of the centre is tightening. Constituencies are being left next to no choice over which candidates can be considered. Those that stray, as in the case of High Wycombe, have their selection suspended...

As the election approaches, the power of Mr Cameron to shape the outcome of each selection will only increase. Just as Mr Blair doled out choice constituencies in the north to his mates in the final weeks before polling day, so Mr Cameron will be mad if he passes up the chance to ensure that those on the benches behind him in a new Commons measure up to the demands he will make of them. And, yes, one can see why an incoming Prime Minister would want to make sure that as many of his chums and acolytes as possible come into government with him. Who knows, it might even make for a more talented and effective parliamentary party. There's value to that.

But there are also trade-offs. Among them the obvious contrast between a party leadership that promises to decentralise power while simultaneously gathering more power and control for itself, jealously guarding it from local preorogatives. Here too, of course, and as in the Lords, the Cameronians may say that unless they have the right people, they won't be able to make good on their promises. And here too there's doubtless something to that.

Yet it leaves the nagging, persistent impression that the leadership asks that it be judged on its intentions, not its actions. All the talk about restoring the dignity and importance of parliament sits ill with packing the Lords with cronies and creating a couple of dozen pocket boroughs. 'Twas ever thus you may say and there's certainly an 18th century quality to all this. But if we are to have 18th century measures, it's a shame we can't also have 18th century men. This is the doomed romantic in me speaking, of course.

Nevertheless, it seems unwise for a presumptive government to permit such an obvious gap to emerge between their rhetoric and their actions. It smacks of the kind of humbug and cant to which all ministries eventually succumb but some at least have the good grace to begin without.

There are many Tories, I suspect, who deplored this sort of caper when it was practised by Blair. They were probably right to deplore it and they should probably think that it's no more acceptable when it's done by a party you support. Conversely, Labour supporters who thought it fine for Blair to do this have few grounds for criticising Cameron for doing likewise.

Perhaps we should accept that time change and that parliament will never again be what we imagine it once was and could be again. The Presidentialisation of British politics continues - something which will only be exacerbated should these television debates take place - and may by now be an irresistable force anyway. But if this is the case it might be better for all concerned if we were honest about it and accepted that all the talk of real parliamentary reform - ie, matters more important than expenses - is actually really just talk and little more than that. Good for TV interviews but that's all.

As I say, this may be inevitable and it might even lead to better government. But, at the risk of being all awkward, is that enough?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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