To celebrate 25 years of The Spectator/Threadneedle Parliamentarian Awards, we invite you to nominate the best MP of the past quarter-century
The question hangs in the air: what makes a great parliamentarian? And the answer echoes back: many things. A great parliamentarian may be a swashbuckling orator whose rhetoric never fails to draw blood. He or she may be an energetic campaigner, striving on their constituents’ behalf for a new hospital or school. He may be a crumpled backbencher who upholds the tenets and conventions of their party. He may be a thinker, a gambler, a rebel or a ham. A gilded few might claim with some justification, ‘I am all of the above.’
It is 25 years since The Spectator first began to recognise these qualities — outside the confines of its own pages, that is — with the annual Parliamentarian of the Year Awards. The inaugural winner of our main prize, the Parliamentarian of the Year award itself, was David Owen. Since then, the roll call of victors has grown to include John Smith, Nigel Lawson, Robin Cook, William Hague, John Major, Tony Blair and even, we must admit, Gordon Brown. The choices made by our judging panel of Westminster cognoscenti may not please all of the people, all of the time — but they are a reliable catalogue of the dominant players in modern British politics.
Even that abridged list of names captures some of the defining parliamentary episodes of the past quarter-century. Lawson’s sweeping and assured budget in 1988 — which drastically cut the top rate of tax for high-income earners, and promptly earned more cash for the Exchequer. Tony Blair pecking at John Major, ‘Weak! Weak! Weak!’ Robin Cook’s resignation over the Iraq war, accompanied by a speech that reverberated both inside and outside the walls of the House. And William Hague besting Blair in Prime Minister’s Questions, again and again. If parliament is in part theatre, then this troupe’s output has spanned the entire range from tragedy to comedy, from high drama to low farce.
Make no mistake: our awards — which include other categories, such as the Best Speech, Newcomer and Inquisitor of the Year — are not just a confection set beside the main Westminster feast. They are not simply an exercise in back-slapping nostalgia and bonhomie. There is some of that, yes. This would not be The Spectator, nor an awards ceremony, were it otherwise. Yet it is our fixed belief that as well as putting the worst MPs to the chase, we must also celebrate the very best. The current parliament, elected in May, contains the largest influx of new members for more than 65 years. They need, and deserve, examples to aspire to.
Celebrating the work of our parliamentarians may not be the country’s most popular pursuit at this, or at any other, moment in time — but that is precisely why it must be done. After last year’s expenses scandal, the public’s faith in the political process has been scoured and scarred by a barrage of duck houses, dirty moats and dirtier mortgage fiddles. Even the catharsis of a general election, and the forced retirement of some of parliament’s worst offenders, is unlikely to have repaired the damage. But it is only right that people are shaken of the view, best put by Ambrose Bierce, that politics is ‘a means of livelihood affected bythe more degraded portion of our criminal classes’. There is nothing criminal, nor in fact bad, about many of our politicians.
Parliament’s reputation has not only suffered by dint of its own expense claims. The past 25 years have witnessed a steady erosion of its legislative power. Whether it is thanks to the grasping reach of Brussels, or the cosy excesses of ‘sofa government’, MPs appear to have become less and less relevant.
But as we are the ones who put them in parliament — the represented to their representation — what does that mean for us? Perhaps we should rail at a political class that has outsourced its responsibilities so easily and so carelessly. But when an opposition politician can be arrested for receiving leaked information from a Home Office whistle-blower, as Damian Green was last year, then it is clear that not all politicians are equally to blame.
There are some signs that parliament is stirring into action. The jostling for ministerial positions has become even more competitive under a coalition government — and so parliamentary alternatives are looking even more attractive. For MPs who might have found a place in a majority government, but who have missed out otherwise, there are always the select committees in the House. Indeed, throw in the introduction of elected select committee chairs, and those bodies now have a fresh vitality and thrust about them overall.
The chairman of the Treasury select committee, and last year’s Spectator/Threadneedle Backbencher of the Year, Andrew Tyrie, has said that ‘the fightback by parliament is beginning now’. And it is not just idle talk. His committee recently won the power to veto George Osborne’s appointments to the Office for Budget Responsibility — an unglamorous coup for parliament, but a coup nonetheless.
Now for the participatory bit. For the past two years, we have asked readers to vote for a Readers’ Representative — the politician whom they believe has best represented the public interest that year. Douglas Carswell was the winner last year, Nadine Dorries the year before. But, this year, we are trying something different. To mark the quarter-century anniversary of the Parliamentarian of the Year Awards, we are seeking your votes for the Greatest Parliamentarian of the Last 25 Years. It might be one of the names mentioned above. It might not. In any case, MPs would say that you are spoilt for choice. Whereas you, of course, may beg to differ.
To nominate someone, go to new.spectator.co.uk/parliamentarian and make the case for your choice. The most persuasive nomination will win its author two tickets to the 25th Parliamentarian Awards Dinner, a black-tie event that will be held in Chelsea’s Royal Hospital Gardens on 17 November. A selection of readers’ nominations will also be published in the magazine. Subscribers can also enter a free prize draw for tickets at new.spectator.co.uk/spectatorplus.