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Charles Walker MP: Fewer MPs must mean Fewer Ministers

Charles WalkerCharles Walker is MP for Broxbourne and a vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee.

The mood of the House of Commons has been lifted by a new and refreshing intake of Parliamentarians. Regardless of their age, they are bright, articulate and in the main less partisan than the issue that went before them.

My own benches positively sparkle with talent and it’s great fun getting to know the range of characters and personalities that I’ve the pleasure of calling colleagues. They’re impressive and diligent - keen to champion their constituencies and the causes dear to their heart.

Of course, David Cameron, must take much of the credit for the wave of optimism surrounding the Class of 2010. Whether you like it or not (and I do), the coalition has tapped into the public mood for at least a period of politics that leans toward placing the nation’s immediate and pressing interests above all else.

But unlike his predecessor in Number 10, the current Prime Minister is not a control freak. He has the maturity to tolerate reasoned dissent. His relaxed style is refreshing and reaches beyond Downing Street, right into the heart of Parliament. In an age without deference, he recognises that his new colleagues are far more comfortable challenging both him and the institution that they serve. This is healthy and is to be welcomed.

The primary role of Parliament is to hold Government, the Executive, to account. The Whips are adjusting to this new streak of independence. Out of necessity, the testosterone-fuelled bullying and cajoling of the past is slowly being replaced by a more subtle approach. Of course, the Whips are never going to completely sheath their claws but their style is now less rabid Rottweiler and more attentive Labrador.

If what we’re seeing in the House of Commons is a manifestation of the much vaunted “New Politics” we were promised by the coalition, then it deserves to be welcomed. But caution is still required in the handling of “New”, lest it simply provide marketing cover for some old-style fixing.

Part of the sales pitch to the electorate in the pursuit of “New Politics” was to reduce the size of the House of Commons. The Coalition’s heart is now set on the policy. Regardless of its questionable merits, it’s a shame to think that some of the fresh talent we are now enjoying may be forced off the stage prematurely while their public are still demanding more.

However, reducing the size of the House can only be right, if matched by at least a comparable percentage reduction in the number of Ministers. Failure to do this will further concentrate patronage in the hands of Government. And it’s patronage that poisons the political well.  It’s patronage that causes Members of Parliament to promise one thing in their constituency and be persuaded to do another thing in Westminster. It’s patronage that the public find so distasteful and allows them to believe, often unfairly, that their representatives are simply careerists, looking to climb the greasy pole.

Bluntly and inescapably, patronage is the oxygen of politics. Governments are greedy for it, up to now their appetite has never been sated. However, we can only hope in their sweeping vision for “New Politics” that the PM and his Deputy are more enlightened in their approach. The Coalition’s commitment to “New Politics” will be found to be genuine if it supports an amendment to the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill that reduces the number of Ministers in line with the cull of MPs. This is a modest suggestion. In fact a suggestion so modest that it doesn’t even dilute the Government’s patronage but simply retains the status quo. Instead of having 95 Ministers in the House of Commons, future Governments will have to make do with 87 - still 29 more than were required on January 1st 1940 when complex politics had Nazi Germany rolling across Europe towards the threshold of our shores.

But if the Government decides it’s unable to support such an amendment, then it’s to be hoped that my Backbench colleagues will rise to the challenge of taking this hard but necessary decision. Because a vote to reduce the Ministerial payroll will send a clear message to our constituents that we, their Members of Parliament, “get” the “New Politics”. Marginally reducing our chance of achieving Ministerial Office will be offset by the nailing of the worn caricature that “we’re only in it for ourselves”.

If old and new colleagues need fortifying in advance of supporting this change against the weight of a reluctant Government, let them draw comfort from this. They will be going into re-selections, triggered by the Boundary Review or the General Election, knowing that they can look their electorate in the eye because they’ve made the right decision – putting their service to their constituents above all other considerations.  Not just talking about “New Politics” but actually acting to bring it to life.

In our Parliament it’s not the big speech that you’re judged on, but what you do in the Division Lobbies. When history is written, it’s how you vote that counts.


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