My Lords, read the book…

When one speaks in a debate in the Lords, it is always gratifying when others refer to theGoverning Britain 9781526145451 speech.  On occasion one gets mentioned without speaking.  Because of a graduation ceremony in Hull last Thursday, I was not able to be in the Lords for a debate on standards in public life, introduced by Lord Blunkett.  However, I was referenced in two of the contributions.  Lord Hunt of Kings Heath drew attention to the debate I have secured next Thursday on the need for training ministers and civil servants in leadership skills.  It was a good trailer for the debate.  The other reference was a good plug for Governing Britain, made by Lord Wallace of Saltaire, when he declared:

‘Constitutional democracy is not a contest, as the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, said, in which the winner takes all and the losers have to swallow whatever humiliation is inflicted on them. It is about limited government, checks and balances on executive power, the rule of law, transparency and respect for minorities as well as for the majority currently in power. The new book of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, Governing Britain, spells this out very well and I recommend it to all on the Conservative Benches.’.

I wonder if this will count as impact?   Doubtless will for the publishers, but not sure about REF…

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Making the case for a statutory House of Lords appointments commission

My Question for Short Debate (QSD) – asking what plans the Government had to putindex the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis – was taken as dinner break business last Monday.  As it was my QSD, I had a guaranteed ten minutes, but the number of speakers was such that everyone else, bar the minister, had two minutes each.  There was clear support for putting the commission on a statutory basis.  A few disagreed, albeit making speeches that in my view did not add greatly to the debate and in at least one case completely disregarding what had already been said.  The minister, Lord True, spoke against as well, but in a speech that seemed more concerned with tackling other players than the ball.  As someone observed afterwards, his speech rather bore out what I had said in opening – that the minister would have ten minutes to say what he could say in ten seconds, namely that the Government have no plans to put the commission on a statutory basis.  He may have been better served by simply doing that. 

You can read the debate here.  The campaign to achieve a statutory appointments commission continues.  As I argued in the debate, it is crucial to enhancing the legitimacy of the House and it may be prudent for the Government to accept the case now rather than wait until overtaken by more radical demands for change.  Experience has shown the value of piecemeal reform.

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The need to keep MPs’ onside….

In response to criticism by some Conservative MPs of Dominic Raab’s handling of the   Afghanistan crisis, one ally of the Foreign Secretary is reported to have said ‘The foreign secretary doesn’t have time to sit in the tearoom talking to MPs who’ve read a few articles and suddenly think they know lots about foreign affairs’.

As regular readers will know, utilising informal space – the tea and dining rooms, the Commons division lobby division lobbies (pictured) and corridors – to talk to MPs is actually an important part of generating and maintaining political support.  As I argued in my April 2019 article in Parliamentary Affairs, the use of informal space in Parliament matters.  It matters to MPs for the purposes of socialisation, essentially learning the norms of Westminster and how to do the job – something MPs newly elected in 2019 have missed it on because of the pandemic – as well as for lobbying, information exchange, and – crucial for ministers – maintaining political support.  As one senior Cabinet minister once reported, he dined in the Commons’ dining room at least once a week ‘without fail – you must’.

Doing the rounds in the tea and dining rooms is a core part of keeping MPs on one’s side, especially important when problems arise.  If ministers have not maintained a presence, they are vulnerable when they encounter stormy political waters.  That applies to Prime Ministers.  As I recorded in the article, the failure to utilise informal space left Edward Heath vulnerable when challenged for the party leadership.  It was the same with Margaret Thatcher and, indeed, John Major, who spent a great deal of time in the tea and dining rooms before becoming Prime Minister, but neglected the space when in No. 10.  Theresa May was also not one for spending time mixing informally and again that counted against her when the situation over Brexit became critical.  It may also render Boris Johnson vulnerable.  He does not have a history of spending time rubbing shoulders with backbenchers.

The problem is especially acute for Prime Ministers in that the very fact of being Prime Minister tends to keep them away from informal space in Westminster.  They are too tied up with running Government than in bolstering their political base.  As Margaret Thatcher said to Kenneth Baker after the 1990 leadership contest, ‘You… told me that I would have to ring up MPs and spend time in the Tea Room.  That’s not for me after eleven years…’.  Her neglect of informal space, according to one of her supporters, cost her anything between ten and thirty crucial votes.

CallaghanIt is thus a challenge for the occupant of No. 10.  The premiership of James Callaghan (pictured) demonstrated, though, that it can be done.  He was adept at spending time in the Palace, mixing with backbenchers.  To some extent he made a virtue of a necessity, in that he had to be present often late at night for crucial votes, but chatting informally to Members was something that came naturally to him.  He made a habit of attending the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  When the support of third parties became crucial to the Government’s survival, he spent time in the Palace lobbying members of minor parties in order to do deals with them.  His use of informal space not only kept his leadership secure, it helped keep his Government in office.

Mobilising support through the use of informal space was a challenge for ministers during the pandemic, when such contact had to be virtual.  It will be interesting to see how informal space is structured, and how it is used by ministers, once both Houses decant during the period of the Restoration and Renewal Programme.  For MPs, making use of proceedings in the chamber and committee rooms is clearly important.  It is the use of such formal space that attracts attention and scholarly analysis – it is public and measurable behaviour.  However, what happens away from the chamber matters as well and can be crucial in explaining outcomes.

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Debates in the Lords….

I was in the Lords last week for the debate on Afghanistan.  There were over 100 speakers, but64956 the debate was notable more for the quality of some speeches than the quantity.  It reflected the experience and expertise of the membership, with contributions from peers who have served as Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Chief of the General Staff, Head of MI5, heads of the diplomatic service, ambassadors, Secretaries of State for Defence, Foreign Secretary, and Lord Chief Justice, among others.  There were some very telling speeches, both in criticising US policy and in identifying future threats.   It was notable that media coverage was not confined to the Commons, where there were also some remarkable speeches, but included speeches by peers such as Baroness Manningham-Buller, drawing on her experience in MI5, Lord Dannett, as former Chief of the General Staff, and former Defence and Foreign Secretary, Lord Hammond.

The House returns in a couple of weeks for its September sitting.  I have secured two debates during the period.  On the first day back (6 September), I have a Question for Short Debate to ask the Government what plans they have to put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis.  Such is the interest in the subject that 21 peers are already signed up to speak in what will be a one-hour debate.  The House of Lords Library has already prepared a briefing pack for it, which can be accessed here.

I was also successful in the ballot for a debate on the last day of the sitting (16 September).  This will be a two-and-a-half hour debate on the case for enhancing the quality of government through introducing training in core leadership skills for ministers and senior civil servants.  Various attempts have been made to provide training, but the provision has been variable and not mandatory.  The Government recognises the need for training, though the emphasis tends to be on civil servants rather than ministers.  Again, the excellent House of Lords Library researchers have produced a valuable briefing pack, accessible here.   Several peers with experience of Government will be contributing.

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Caption competition: the winner is…

There were some splendid entries for the caption competition.  As usual, it was a difficult Wroxton cabaret choice.  Some were especially inventive.  Some made good use of the picture to link to my work or teaching.  A commendation to Malcolm Wells for an entry that I really enjoyed, though which may leave readers who did not do my US Presidency course a little perplexed: ‘Do you know Barber’s Theory of Presidential Character?’ ‘Hum it for me’.   Tony Sands may be gratified to know that he was in with a shout with his entry: ‘Well your Lordship, you did say that the latest Amazon sales figures for Politics UK would be music to your ears’.

However, the entry that met the ‘laugh out loud’ test and was especially apt was that by Alex M:

‘The chamber performance of the opera “Governing Britain” is music to His Lordship’s ears’.

If he would like to get in touch, his prize will be in the mail.

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Caption competition….

BY popular demand (well, reader Tony Sands, is especially keen) another caption competition.  This one should get the regular contributors especially exercised.  It is a photograph taken at the 14th Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, held in July 2019 at Wroxton College, Oxfordshire.  I organise the Workshops: the first was held in 1994 at the Berlin Science Centre; all those since have been at Wroxton College.  The last one was different in that, following dinner, there was a cabaret.  The Hull Law and Legislative Studies (LLS) graduate who assists me with the organisation excels at multi-tasking: when not pursuing a career in the law (she has been called to the Bar) or, with her husband, running a charity for autistic young people, works as a professional singer.  She gave a stunning performance.  (The person in the background is her husband, managing the sound system.)  She gave a short talk at the end, to which I responded.  I pointed out that we complement one another well: with her singing, she can fill a theatre; with my singing, I can empty one.  More details of the Workshop, and pictures of the event (including the cabaret), can be found on the Workshop website.

Wroxton cabaret

As usual, the reader who comes up with what in my opinion is the wittiest caption and most appropriate in context will be the winner.  The prize will be a copy of Governing Britain, or – if the winner is already a proud possessor of a copy – another publication.

I look forward (I think) to what imaginative readers contribute…

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Politics UK – now in its 10th edition…

Next week (29 July) sees the publication of the latest edition of Politics UK.  I have just receivePolitics UK 10 edd advance copies.  It is certainly a heavyweight publication.  At 780 pages it is heavy to lift – and that is just the paperback edition.  (There is now a hardbound edition, designed presumably for libraries.)  The first edition was published in 1991 by Philip Allan.  On that occasion, it was written by Bill Jones, me and four others.  Bill Jones came up with the idea; my contribution was coming up with the title.   Since then, the core authors have been Bill Jones and me, with others contributing specific chapters or thought pieces; in recent editions, we have been assisted by a third editor.

The book has established itself as a, if not the, leading student text on British politics.  The breadth of topics covered ensures a wide-ranging appeal.  It encompasses ideas and policies and not just institutions and processes.  You can see the contents list here.  The publishers have also done an impressive job in terms of production and illustrations.   The price of the paperback (and e-book) edition is £32.99, though you can presently get it from the publishers at £26.39 – follow the link just supplied – and of a hardcover edition £120, though available at the moment at £96.  As I said, the hardcover edition is likely to appeal to libraries, though if you want to combine a good read with building your muscles every time you pick it up…

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Reforming the House of Lords

Just over twenty years ago, the then Sir Patrick (now Lord) Cormack and I formed the_39082269_lordsstill_300 Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber to press the case for reform within the House to strengthen it in fulfilling its functions.  The House carries out well its role in legislative scrutiny, facilitated by its composition (collectively, no one party having a majority, and individually, with members who have notable experience and expertise) and its procedures (all amendments being considered, no programme motions, any peer able to contribute at committee stage, amendments taken at Third Reading).  We also have procedures that the House of Commons does not for scrutinizing delegated legislation, at both the input stage (Delegated Powers Committee) and output stage (Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee).  The House also has a valuable range of select committees.  Nonetheless, we believe we could strengthen how we operate – a view widely held by members, and the House does undertake reviews leading to reform (we have just introduced a new select committee structure) – as well as address criticisms levelled at the House.  There is little public understanding of what the House does and what views are held often derive from the activities of individual members – the same applies to the Commons – and what funding is provided.  Some people appear more aware of the attendance allowance than of the collective work of the House and what it does to ensure that law is good law or at least less bad than it would be were it not for the work of the House.  The Lords adds value to the political process.  Those who claim it is a significant cost to the public purse fail to look at the other side of the ledger.  How do you monetize improvements to the law of the nation?

As the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, we have campaigned to strengthen the House through a series of reforms.  Our manifesto was in effect embodied in the House of Lords Bill, which I drafted shortly after the group was formed.   The Bill had four main parts:

To put the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis

To end the hereditary peers’ by-election

To remove members who committed to serious criminal offences

To enable peers to retire and to remove those who fail to attend

The Bill was introduced as a Private Member’s Bill in the name of Lord Steel of Aikwood (a senior peer, not associated with either main party) and we were successful in getting it debated on Second Reading in July 2007.  You can read the debate here.  Although widely supported, there was not time available to make progress and the provision to abolish the hereditary peers’ by-elections was opposed by a small number of hereditary peers.   Since then, we have pursued the component elements of the Bill.  In 2014, we were successful in getting the House of Lords Reform Bill – enabling peers to retire, removing those who fail to attend, and expelling those convicted of serious criminal offences – on to the statute book.  One of our supporters in the Commons, Dan Byles, was successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills and introduced it; he was energetic in building support for it and ensuring Government acquiesced in its passage.  The following session, one of our number, Baroness Hayman (who had been the first Lord Speaker) successfully steered the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Bill on to the statute book, extending the power of the House to suspend members and introducing the power to expel a member, a power (unlike the Commons) it did not have.

There is still unfinished business.  We have campaigned to reduce the size of the House.  Although more than 100 peers have made use of the provisions of the 2014 Act to retire, we are still too large. In 2016, we tabled a motion ‘that this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved’.  The motion was debated on 5 December and agreed without a division.  In response, the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, established a committee under Lord Burns to recommend ways to reducing the size.  Although the committee came up with proposals designed to get the numbers down – including a two out, one in provision – the Prime Minister has not shown the restraint necessary in creating new peers to help slim the size of the House.

House of Lords Peerage Nominations BillNot unrelated, we continue to favour putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis.  To that end, I drafted a Bill to achieve that.  I was unsuccessful in the ballot for Private Member’s Bills at the start of the session.  I have, however, been able to introduce it as an unballoted Bill.  It had its formal first reading last Wednesday.  There is an outside chance that there may be time for a Second Reading debate before the end of the session – it is way down the queue in term of PMBs awaiting Second Readings.  However, there is good news in that I have been successful in getting a Question for Short Debate (QSD), which will be taken during our September sitting, asking the Government what plans they have to put the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis.  This will provide a platform to make the case for the Bill.

You can read the Bill here It embodies the principles embraced by the Campaign and which are widely supported in the House.  The leading lawyer and cross-bench peer, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, has tweeted that it can expect wide support in the House.  There is still a long way to go.  The barrier to achieving change is not the House of Lords, but rather Government.  The minister in the Lords, Lord True, recently said in response to a question about reform of the Lords that the Government do not favour piecemeal reform.  Well, I do and it is piecemeal reform, unlike grand schemes of reform, that has proved successful this century.

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Revisiting ‘The Conservative Nation’

I recently took part in a seminar, organised by Political Quarterly, to discuss the work of Andrew Gamble, author of numerousCover image works on political science, including The Conservative Nation, and a colleague when I was at the University of Sheffield.  My paper was titled ‘The Conservative Nation Redivivus?’ and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal.  It has already been published online.  Here is the abstract:

“This article addresses the relationship between Andrew Gamble’s study of the Conservative nation and his more recent advocacy of a social democratic constitution. It argues that the former—the nature of the Conservative Party, mobilising support successfully—may serve to prevent the realisation of the latter, the Conservative view of the constitution prevailing over pressures for a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom. Whereas the analysis of the Conservative nation is grounded in, and can only be understood by reference to, an appreciation of political realities, the approach to constitutional change embraced by Gamble is largely apolitical, concerned primarily with ends to the neglect of means.”

I hope that may whet the appetite to read the article.  The analysis draws on my previous typology of Prime Ministers as well as the criteria I have advanced in earlier works both for Conservative success and for achieving desired outcomes.

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Maintaining the Palace of Westminster

Three years ago I asked a question about the cost of repairing and maintaining the Palace of Westminster in the period leading up to the expected decant of the Palace for the Restoration and Renewal Programme.   The annual cost of simply keeping the Palace habitable while undertaking various projects is substantial.  I returned to the issue earlier this month and basically sought an update on costs as well as asking about the estimated risk of catastrophic failure of essential services over the next few years.   The answer, from the Senior Deputy Speaker, is reproduced below.  With major projects included, the cost in the period 2021-25 is over £400m.   By the time we decant, I suspect it will have gone over £500m.  There is also a medium risk of an essential service, such as water, failing.  At least the risk of unexploded ordinance going off is very low.


27 May 2021

The forecast cost of repair and maintenance of the Palace of Westminster in each year from 2022/23 to 2024/25, as per the most recent Medium Term Financial Plans, is set out in the table below. This includes the forecast spend on both maintenance and major projects on the Palace. There is not yet a reliable forecast for repair and maintenance beyond the 2024/25 financial year.

2021/22 2022/23 2023/24 2024/25
Planned preventative & Reactive maintenance £7,821,724 £8,156,641 £8,134,727 £8,218,493
Minor projects £2,212,473 £2,212,473 £2,212,473 £2,212,473
Maintenance team £5,013,950 £5,013,950 £5,013,950 £5,013,950
Maintenance and Minor projects £15,048,146 £15,383,063 £15,361,149 £15,444,916
Major projects £102,393,805 £140,357,071 £98,586,481 £23,504,834
Total £117,441,951 £155,740,134 £113,947,630 £38,949,749

The risks of failure relating to the physical condition of the Palace of Westminster are reviewed and mitigated as part of the operation and maintenance of the Parliamentary Estate. These risks include fire, hitting uncharted underground services, unexploded ordnance, and failure of legally required services, all of which have mitigation plans in place to reduce the risk of failure. The table below shows the current assessment of the likelihood of the top five risk events in relation to catastrophic failure.

Top 5 Risk Events in relation to Catastrophic Failure Likelihood
Fire during construction work Low
Collapsing structures Very Low
Uncharted underground services Very Low
Unexploded ordnance (UXO) or other hazardous materials Very Low
Failure of legally required services (e.g. water) Medium

Source: In-House Services and Strategic Estates Health and Safety & maintenance team risk

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