I said I’d write this week about a curiosity in our system. This is the constitutional arrangement whereby at national level ministers, including the Prime Minister, are drawn from Parliament.
The same is true in most Parliamentary democracies, although in some, France for example, Cabinet Ministers have to resign from parliament when they’re appointed.
What are the effects of this? First, it means that Ministers feel very accountable to Parliament. There is nothing that brings your feet closer to the fire than being summoned to the House of Commons and questioned. And it’s not just the formal questioning. It’s also that when you vote any of your colleagues can grab you in the division lobby and raise an issue. And believe me, they do.
Second, being a constituency MP means your feet are kept firmly on the ground. The time you spend doing constituency visits and surgeries means you’re constantly brought up against the effects, good or bad, of what the Government is or isn’t doing. It’s quite easy as a Minister to get swept up into an official world quite remote from everyday life. The constituency is your rock of reality, which gives you democratic legitimacy as an elected member, but also an anchor in the real world.
Third, it means the House of Commons is made up of people with hugely varying job descriptions. There’s sometimes controversy about MPs’ ‘second jobs’. Every MP who is a minister has a second job, an incredibly demanding one. It means you can’t do a lot of things a backbench MP would do.
You accept collective responsibility for government policy and must support it. I sit round the Cabinet table, and can influence government policy, so it’s fair enough that I should be obliged to support what we agree if I want to stay at the table. The same is true in many other walks of life. We often accept the majority view of others, at work or in other activities. It would be impossibly arrogant always to assume that our own individual view trumps all others.
For a minister it means you can’t speak or ask questions in Parliament about issues outside your own responsibilities. When Horsham residents want me to raise issues on their behalf I have to find other, generally more private, ways of doing so.
Does it have to be like this? No. Many countries have a rigid divide between the legislature and the executive. In presidential systems, like America, where the head of government is directly elected, the equivalent of ministers cannot be legislators as well. We could move to that system. But it would be a massive upheaval with many unforeseen consequences. So for all its quirks and oddities, I’ll settle for our tried and tested approach. Next week I’ll write about how the same principles apply in local government.