An enjoyable aspect of parliamentary rules and conventions is that almost no one understands them. This has become acutely true in an age when the media no longer regularly reports proceedings in Parliament. So when the House of Lords threatened to derail the government tax credit cuts this week, no one, that I spotted, foresaw what actually happened. Knowing that the measure came forward as a statutory instrument, not a Bill, and was therefore (in both Houses) unamendable, its opponents in the Lords voted not to reject it but to delay considering it. They set conditions which had to be met before they would do so. Thus they defied the government without flatly breaking the conventions, which was clever, and unpredicted. The saga shows what advantage accrues to those few, in either House, who bother to study the rules and exploit them. Before ‘family-friendly’ hours destroyed the proper scrutiny of legislation in the Commons, this mastery of procedural powers of delay was the main weapon of opposition. The Lords were wrong to go so far in this particular case, but it is good to see a revival of the old crafts. As part of its exciting commitment to diversity, the government should find a couple of people on its own side who know how Parliament works.
There is a row because the new edition of the ministerial code has removed explicit mention of the duty of ministers to conform to international law. Some will feel relief that the will of our own parliament is given greater prominence, and less deference is shown to those seeking to rule the world through universal and undemocratic legal doctrines, but one cannot blame ‘human rights’ lawyers for getting hot under their gowns. What did slightly shock me, however, was a letter in the Guardian from Sir Paul Jenkins, who was, until recently, the Treasury solicitor.