Parliamentary sketch – No conditioner in linen wash

Posted on: 16th May 2014

For four years the two parties of the Coalition Government have been on (mostly) best behaviour. It’s been tough. When you throw your lot in with your mortal enemy it’s tough always having to appear polite and agreeable. There’s a lot of nose holding, swallowing hard and biting of tongues.

But now the dirty linen is being brought out for a very public washing, and you’ll all have to get used to this… for the next 12 months.

This week my Liberal Democrat colleagues castigated Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove, for pilfering £400 million from the mainstream schools’ budget to prop up his costly ‘Free Schools’ wheeze.

When you look at it on the ground here in west Cornwall it doesn’t look good. My old school, Helston Community College, needs about £9 million to fund the rebuild of its decrepit and frankly dangerous C Block. But that can’t be found because Mr Gove is diverting so much to support his Academies and Free Schools programme.

In fact the same amount – i.e. £9 million – has been spent creating a new ‘Free School’ just up the road for about 90 pupils – i.e. school places we don’t actually need! – when the 1600 students at Helston are left with a building which isn’t fit for purpose. It’s not just party political dirty linen, it’s putting political dogma before basic need.

Four years ago we went into the Coalition realising that it was the “least worst option”. All the alternatives were worse for the country. Most of us swallowed hard and offered guarded support. Those who stood to benefit from enhanced status and income attempted to evangelise with a rose-tinted view that the programme represented three quarters a Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Government.

Though there were merits, there were also many pitfalls – including i) signing up to abstaining on votes which were crucial to Liberal Democrat pledges on Student Fees, totemic commitments on nuclear power and weapons and much else; ii) signing up to too much with an implied acceptance of any policy which purports to deliver a broad theme in the Government’s programme; iii) it didn’t acknowledge that Government is as much the response to ‘events’ as it is the opportunity to introduce new policy, and iv) it did not acknowledge that the language used was open to wide and variable interpretation.

So the first lesson of Coalition Government is that the Parties should not become only constrained by the apparent detail of a hastily cobbled together programme. Indeed, Coalition Government is the best opportunity to build a stronger role for a more effective Parliament; i.e. the Chamber of directly elected representatives whose role it is to hold the Government to account.

A Coalition Government should, of course, draw up a programme of themes but the experience of the last four years has proven what I cautioned my colleagues to accept at the time; i.e. that the two Parties of Government should leave more to be determined by Parliament rather than through the enforcers in the Party Whip’s Offices.

When Parliament witnessed the two Leaders of the two Coalition Parties sit respectfully beside each other at the despatch box as they, in turn, made mutually contradictory statements to Parliament following the conclusions of the Leveson Inquiry, the Government didn’t collapse; the world didn’t stop; there wasn’t a run on the pound.

When the Government lost the vote on possible military strikes on Syria in September 2013, likewise, we didn’t end up on a slippery slope to Armageddon.

In fact there is nothing on earth which would have undermined the Coalition Government had it acknowledged that the Parties making up the Coalition were free to bring forward options to Parliament for specific proposals which could not be resolved within the Coalition itself.

When the Government rewrote the Coalition commitment to “stop the top-down reorganisation of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care” before the ink was dry on the document the two Parties should have asked the Civil Servants to draw up different options for the delivery of a reconfiguration of health services rather than allowing the matter to be resolved through back room negotiation and deals followed by enforcement by Party Whips.

Coalition Government should be easy. Get on with the things on which the two Parties agree. Seek sensible compromise where you don’t. And when you fail to achieve compromise don’t stitch up a back room deal and enforce through the Whips but take the two proposals to Parliament and let MPs decide on the merits of the case they make. There’d be less dirty linen to be washed and the country would be better informed and involved.

You can contact Andrew George by email: His constituency office can be contacted at Trewella, 18 Mennaye Road, Penzance, Cornwall, TR18 4NG. Telephone: 01736 360020.

Andrew George MP
Kernow a’n West ha Syllan
West Cornwall and the Scillies
Kwartron Porthia
Constituency of St Ives
Tel: 01736 360020
Fax: 01736 332866 13th May 2014