The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


John Major’s Book for the CPS – The Erosion of Parliamentary Government – 15 October 2003

The text of John Major’s book written for the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) entitled “The Erosion of Parliamentary Government”, published in October 2003.



The Rt Hon John Major CH was Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1990 to 1997, having previously served as Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a Conservative Member of Parliament for Huntingdon from 1979 to 2001. Since leaving politics, he has returned to business in the private sector. He also lectures around the world and is active in many charities.

The aim of the Centre for Policy Studies is to develop and promote policies that provide freedom and encouragement for individuals to pursue the aspirations they have for themselves and their families, within the security and obligations of a stable and law-abiding nation. The views expressed in our publications are, however, the sole responsibility of the authors. Contributions are chosen for their value in informing public debate and should not be taken as representing a corporate view of the CPS or of its Directors. The CPS values its independence and does not carry on activities with the intention of affecting public support for any registered political party or for candidates at election, or to influence voters in a referendum.



The Decline of Democracy

The Decline of Parliament

The Politicisation of the Civil Service

The Manipulation of Government Information



In the six years since leaving Downing Street, I have been approached almost daily and invited to express my views on the Government, the Opposition or the issue of the moment.

Generally, I have resisted. As well I know, government is a tricky business and I have a degree of sympathy for the mistakes that are sometimes made – often for reasons not apparent to the casual observer.

And so, by and large, I have kept my counsel and remained silent – even when provoked by former friend or foe. It has not always been easy but it has been right. The resignation of Alastair Campbell and the evidence revealed to the Hutton Inquiry have drawn attention to much that is wrong in the way that New Labour governs our country. But these, and the many other similar issues that have arisen over the last few years, are merely symptoms of a far deeper malaise: a malaise that is undermining Parliamentary democracy itself. I do not pretend that we have reached the point at which this is irreversible. But I do believe that if we do not act now, then it may become too late. In such a situation it is necessary to speak out. And – perhaps – it would even be cowardly not to do so.

When style and substance intermingle in politics, substance must predominate: where it does not, the fall-out can be unpredictable and far-reaching. New Labour’s obsession with spin, with style, with perception, has given it great presentational successes. But our political system has paid a high price as, on occasion, have its own most skilful practitioners. Slick presentation has proved to be the forerunner of distrust.

The Decline of Democracy

We take democracy so much for granted in our country that we scarcely notice any longer whether it exists; how it is exercised; or the ways in which it is being undermined.

The visible structures appear intact: mature political parties; a universal adult franchise; free elections with a specified maximum term of office; a two-tier Parliament supreme in authority; an independent Head of State; the rule of law; an impartial Civil Service; a free press; traditions of behaviour that amount to hidden institutional safeguards and restraints [1]. It is familiar and comforting.

Indeed, so familiar and comforting that we have scarcely noticed that the timbers which support it are creaking and diseased; and are in danger of collapse. The structures remain but many of them are being hollowed out. The erosion is evident from the top to the bottom.

At the grassroots, our political parties are shrinking in membership from mass movements to the size of special interest groups. The old convictions and prejudices that sustained them through the generations have been replaced by widespread disinterest and complacency. The broad mass of the nation is detached from politics. Many feel a distaste for it. They do not share the ancient tribal loyalties and look askance at the enthusiasts who underpin our system, attend party conferences, and work for the local party machine. W S Gilbert once wrote that every child was “a little Liberal or a little Conservative”. If any lyricist did so today, he or she would be regarded as seriously out of touch.

Our democracy owes a great debt to grassroots activists. But that should not blind us to the reality that all the party machines are moribund, near bankrupt, unrepresentative and ill-equipped to re-enthuse the electorate as a whole.

Nothing is clear cut any more. These days, New Labour ministers are political cross-dressers with a policy portfolio borrowed heavily from their Conservative predecessors and a hard nose for social policy that a Victorian capitalist would envy.

No wonder our largely apolitical electorate is puzzled. But it is not the only puzzle. The widespread (but mistaken) view that “they’re all the same” and “nothing makes any difference” has led to a General Election turnout of under 60%, with the “don’t knows” and the “won’t votes” scoring as highly as the winning party. The campaigners for universal suffrage would have agonised had they lived to see such a day.

No-one should dismiss the turnout at the last election as a “blip”, brought about solely because New Labour was unappealing and the Conservatives unready. The malaise is deep and is getting worse: it needs to be understood and acted upon.

The Decline of Parliament

The rot in our political system is not only at its roots: it is evident in Parliament, too.

The behaviour of individual MPs is the lesser part of the mosaic of disregard for Parliament but it cannot be ignored. Parliament has always contained a number of bad hats. But their ruthless exposure over the last decade, aggravated by the unappealing public response of some of the miscreants, has been damaging. In the 1990s, the Labour spin machine in opposition, allied to elements of a receptive media, was so successful in labelling the Conservative Party as a whole with the sins of individual members, that it was able to damn the Conservative Government, too. But the appetite for scandal, once awakened, is not easily sated and, since 1997, it has repeatedly come back to harm and undermine New Labour.

The failings of a minority of politicians should not be allowed to get out of proportion. Most Members of Parliament have standards comparable to the general public and the Commons is big enough to deal with the abuses of those that do not: far more dangerous is the institutional undermining of our political system.

This arises if any major party is careless of Parliamentary traditions and propriety; if its use of power becomes an abuse of it; if it resorts to character assassination as a political weapon. Our present Government has all these traits.

New Labour has certainly not been ‘purer than pure’: the Prime Minister’s famous promise has not been kept. Since 1997, New Labour offenders have been far closer to the centre of power than their much-maligned predecessors: moreover, there is a perception that New Labour’s failings may have influenced government policy [2]. This charge is vigorously denied. But the suspicion is vivid enough for it to linger since the age of spin has made reality of perception.

And the perceptions are damaging. When senior members of the Labour Party were investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner, there appeared to be an organised attempt to obstruct the inquiries or to withhold proper co-operation. This perception deepened when the Prime Minister established a Committee to examine issues relating to Standards in Public Life and then refused to let his own key officials appear before it. These are murky depths. It is no surprise that many of the public are disillusioned with politics.

All these are factors in the fall in the reputation of the House of Commons. There are wider elements as well. While some of these are inevitable they have rendered it less influential in our lives.

Vital decisions are today often decided in wider fora: in the G7, the UN or – most likely – the EU. This is understood broadly by electors but bitterly resented by swathes of opinion – with the European Union a special target.

An antipathy to the EU is the Approved Text for many commentators, part of the Conservative Parliamentary Party and, re-emerging once again, Labour anti-Europeans. This is not the place to examine this phenomenon in depth, except to note that it does reflect the distaste felt by many people that decisions affecting the UK are no longer the sole prerogative of our Parliament. The fact that it is part of our bargain with Europe – we surrender some of our powers and gain some of theirs – does not assuage deeply felt reservations. The House of Commons is losing control over decision making and, as it does so, many in the electorate look on in disinterest, not least because of the peripheral factors that have brought politics into disrepute.

Nor is this the only loss. As part of this Government’s policy, Parliament has surrendered decision making within the UK to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It looks set to do so to Regional Assemblies as well. As devolution grows, the corollary is inevitable: power is sucked from the Westminster Parliament.

I have never been in favour of devolved Assemblies except in Northern Ireland where, for decades, Ulster politicians had no responsibility whatever for policy. Yet even there I favoured only very restricted powers. My fear was that devolution would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom as a single entity and that this would diminish our influence in the EU and around the world. That has not happened yet: but it still might. That is why I resisted Scottish and Welsh demands for their own Parliaments. Time alone will prove whether I was right or wrong to do so but it is certain that the Conservative Party paid a heavy political price for putting long-term concerns for our country before short-term party political self-interest. We were pro a United Kingdom not anti Scotland or Wales. Alas, it was not seen that way.

New Labour took a more populist and self-interested view and implemented changes that were poorly thought through: even Scots, proud of the principle of Home Rule, admit that its implementation has been a shambles. An overwhelming majority of Scots demanded devolved powers. But – if devolution had to be ceded – it should not have been done in a fashion that was politically motivated to benefit the Labour Party; that was a one-way advantage for Scotland at the expense of England; that ignored the knock-on effect across the UK; and that distorted the electoral make-up of the Commons.

It was tactless beyond belief to appoint Dr John Reid, a Scottish MP as Secretary of State for Health in England. Even worse, it is wholly wrong that Scottish MPs are entitled to vote on legislation at Westminster affecting England yet not vote on similar legislation affecting their own constituencies: it is also a scandal that English MPs cannot vote on comparable legislation affecting Scotland. New Labour’s devolution was tantamount to gerrymandering an electoral system already biased in their favour by grotesque boundary changes to constituencies. These have resulted in a situation in which the Conservative Party needs an 8% lead in votes over Labour to win the same number of seats; in a system in which vigorous politics offers the best safeguard of individual freedoms, this cannot be acceptable. Parliament loses because Labour has chosen to ignore this anomaly so that it might benefit from it.

Parliament has lost elsewhere, too. The Mayor of London has responsibility without power and without resources in an experiment that, if left unchanged, will bring nothing but grief to London as well as to both present and future Governments. The Mayor needs either more resources or fewer responsibilities.

Monetary policy has also been subcontracted to the Bank of England and could, at some future date – possibly in the next Parliament – find a new home with the European Central Bank.

Some of these changes have merit – arguably some have significant merit. But all of them are consistent in only one regard: they all reduce the power of Parliament. One by one its prerogatives are going. It is debilitating. So are some of the changes within the House of Commons itself.

This has been exacerbated by the Government’s disregard, sometimes contempt, for the Commons. Labour uses its majority as a rubber stamp. Select Committees are ignored or suborned. Complex Bills are poorly scrutinised as the Government is bound to get its way. And if the House of Lords attempts to block or amend legislation, which is its legitimate role, it is discredited and attacked. Already it has been mutilated and fears abolition.

Since 1997, Parliament has been downgraded in more subtle ways, too. Major policy statements have been made outside it, or leaked, before a Parliamentary announcement. This may be a good way to control media coverage but it is bad for democracy. During World War II, Winston Churchill, took the Commons into his confidence and treated it with courtesy and respect – together with his personal presence as far as circumstances allowed. Lord Jenkins made this point in his recent biography. The present Prime Minister rarely attends the House, except when unavoidable, and votes irregularly: the precedent here is Lloyd George’s behaviour from 1918 to 1922. Such disregard extends to the traditional courtesies: informal consultation with the Leader of the Opposition – or between front-benchers – is minimal.

Prime Minister’s Questions has degenerated to pointless farce. Its purpose was never so much to impart or extract information, as to embarrass the Prime Minister – or, in the Prime Minister’s eyes – to expose the inexperience of the Opposition. This, curiously, had a point. If the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition could prevail in head-to-head combat, he rallied his troops and gained in authority.

Now, the triviality of the exchanges has robbed the circus of even that benefit. The Hutton Inquiry has revealed the extent to which the Prime Minister’s responses and emotions are pre-scripted by others. Questions are rambling, often planted by the Whips onto pliant backbenchers, and partisan to the point of irrelevance. Up to a point this has always happened – it was not perfect in my day nor before – but never was it abused with the orchestration that pervades today. Critical questions rarely elicit an answer, or even rational argument, and are more likely to stimulate a patronising jeer or a party political rant in response. It is time to reform this farce or abandon it. Question Time to Ministers is becoming equally pointless. The loser, again, is Parliament.

Parliament has been weakened, too, by the Government’s policy towards the House of Lords. The abolition of the hereditary peers was a populist – and to many, popular – policy. But, for those who wish to see an effective Upper House, it was a mistake: it robbed Parliament of a revising chamber of talent and experience and independent thought. Hereditary legislators were a soft target to attack but, if they had to go, they should have been replaced by others with similar virtues. They were not.

The House of Lords should have more power: there is much it could usefully do. It could improve the quality of our law by pre-legislative scrutiny of Green Papers, thereby foreshadowing changes in the law. It could monitor the resulting Act of Parliament to see how it worked in practice. It could examine and take evidence publicly on draft Treaties. It could establish a Standing Committee on Ethics as moral and personal questions on human behaviour and scientific research become more difficult to adjudicate upon. It could maintain a Standing Constitutional Committee… all this and more would be useful.

I do not agree with the current vogue for a largely elected Second Chamber. Yes – it would be democratic. But No – it would not be an improvement. It would replace nominated leading figures from industry, trade unions, education, the military, the civil service, the media and elsewhere with elected career politicians who failed to make it to the House of Commons. First-rate independent minds who have made it to the top of their professions would be replaced by second-rank politicians whose Party Whips would do their thinking for them. A pale imitation of the Commons would be pointless. And it would further diminish Parliament.

I understand the urge for the legitimacy of election but it is a poor bargain for electors: a less talented House of Lords stuffed with more professional politicians is the wrong prescription for our democratic deficit.

If not election, what? Prime Ministerial appointment alone is no longer acceptable (although any mechanism must provide nomination by political leaders with the intention of maintaining a proper balance in the Upper House). We continue to need a system to nominate leading public figures to maintain and reflect the wide experience now available to the Lords.

And in my view, it should remain “the House of Lords”. Its members should continue to be Peers: to change the name would be pointless if it is to serve its traditional role as a revising Chamber and to withhold the courtesy of the title would be petty.

The Politicisation of the Civil Service

The neutrality of the Civil Service is vital and must be protected. Civil Servants support the policies of the elected Government but are trusted by politicians of every political complexion who acknowledge their political impartiality. This impartiality is now in danger of being compromised [3].

Civil servants need to be confident that preferment is based on merit; and that the civil service ethic is not diluted by politically motivated appointments. The barriers between carrying out the policy of the elected Government and offering support to the politics of the majority party is often a fine one: but it existed and was honoured. It was policed by the Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretaries and was jealously guarded. Thus, when a senior Civil Servant spoke, he was believed. He gave the facts without gloss. This was our tradition and the need to observe the proprieties imposed a great and valuable discipline upon Ministers.

Yet there is genuine concern that the present Government has imposed changes in attitude and structure that have undermined this impartiality. The effect of their actions, whether intended or not, is to begin politicising the Civil Service: too many Ministers behave as if officials should be committed extensions of the New Labour project.

A similar mindset has led to the unseemly sight of Ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, openly blaming the Civil Service for errors that have in the past been accepted as the responsibility of Ministers – and still should be. New Labour’s blame culture must, over time, damage the advice offered to Ministers and prejudice the loyalty and impartiality of the Civil Service.

This changed philosophy is evident in Downing Street. The tone was set by the appointment of a special adviser, instead of a career Civil Servant, as de facto the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister with authority over career civil servants. This position is crucial. The Principal Private Secretary is the gateway to the Prime Minister. He has always had the vital role of ensuring the proper flow of non-political advice and analysis from civil servants – alongside more politically slanted advice. He also has oversight of the priorities – and the proprieties – of the Prime Minister’s diary. Putting a political appointee in such a sensitive post has lost the non-partisan propriety safeguard and it risks exposing the Prime Minister. A case in point is the Prime Minister’s meeting with Mr Bernie Ecclestone over the issue of tobacco advertising and Formula One – and the quite extraordinary absence of a file note detailing the exchanges. Nor can it be right – or wise – for the superintendent of Labour’s ‘Blind Trust’ of donors in opposition to be the quasi civil servant who is the guardian of access to the Prime Minister.

The position worsened further after those initial ill-advised appointments. Professor Peter Hennessy, the Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History was right when he said, in a Royal Society of Arts lecture, [4] that the present reorganisation of No 10 shows:

…a special adviser atop all three segments of the rejigged No. 10 – Jonathan Powell, the PM’s Chief of Staff leading the fused Policy Unit and Private Office now known as the ‘Policy and Government Division’; Alastair Campbell, the PM’s Director of Communications and Strategy, leading a division of that name; and Baroness Morgan, the PM’s Director of Government Relations, heading the ‘Government and Political Relations’ Division.

Reporting to Powell were not only Jeremy Heywood, the PM’s Principal Private Secretary (formerly the head of the Civil Service-manned Private Office), Wendy Thomson, Michael Barber and Geoff Mulgan but also the two new post-2001 election amphibians, the career diplomats Sir Stephen Wall, the PM’s European Adviser, who also heads the Cabinet Office’s European Secretariat, and Sir David Manning, the PM’s Foreign Policy Adviser and head of the Cabinet Office’s Overseas and Defence Secretariat.

So the traditional – and deliberate – distinctions between No. 10 Private Office and the rest of Downing Street, and the Cabinet Secretariat from No. 10 had gone.

The Manipulation of Government Information

The pattern of by-passing the independence of the Civil Service was set in May 1997. The number of political advisers soared [5] as Labour stalwarts moved into the public sector resulting in 10 Downing Street becoming more akin to Labour Party HQ. One by one, the Government Information Officers – the civil service interface between the Government and the media, and the guarantee of impartial and honest answers – were dismissed or forced out. The No. 10 Press Office was politicised and the cult of spin was let loose. All the new political appointees were paid out of the public purse.

Spin is the pornography of politics. It perverts. It is deceit licensed by the Government. Statistics massaged. Expenditure announced and reannounced. The record reassessed. Guilt declared. Innocence proclaimed. Black declared white: all in a day’s work.

From the moment New Labour saw the value of spin, the truth became partisan. The outgoing Conservative Government was to be abused: no piece of character assassination, no lie, no half-truth, no insult was to be missed. Nor were they the only target. Others who embarrassed the Government – even non-politicians such as the 94 year old hospital patient, Mrs Rose Addis or train campaigner Mrs Pam Warren – were all part of the shooting gallery. So too, at one time was “psychologically disturbed” Gordon Brown; and Mo Mowlam, who had committed the sin of being too popular. All were abused and smeared to serve the contemporary interests of the Government at the expense of the reputation of the conduct of politics generally. Nothing on this scale has been seen in modern British politics. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, have individual citizens – unconnected with politics – ever been targeted before.

In its hey-day, the daily line from No. 10 was ruthlessly disseminated. It was formidable propaganda. The Press became the receptacle of Orwellian attempts to manage the news. Favoured journals – and journalists – were given scoops. Others were frozen out to bring them to heel. Independent thought among MPs was discouraged – if not forbidden. Opinions were fed to the timid on their pagers. Some spin doctors crashed in flames though not without a legacy: the five Tests for the Euro, which the Chancellor would still have us believe are Holy Writ, were invented over a weekend to resolve a problem created by a leak from Gordon Brown’s then spin doctor, Charlie Whelan, an aficionado of the Red Lion Pub in Whitehall.

If the old Government Information Service was bypassed, it was not alone. Advisers from outside Government have flourished. The wholly unaccountable Lord Levy became the PM’s special envoy in the Middle East: yet I doubt he was better informed than our most senior diplomats. When Mr Blair wished to visit President Assad, an envoy was approached to check the lie of the land: it is not clear why our Ambassador in Damascus could not perform this function which is – historically at least – the sort of thing he was sent there to do.

Some months ago – after a piece of underhand dealing was exposed, the Prime Minister said – or was it his spokesman and does the distinction matter any more? – that “what was appropriate in opposition was not appropriate in government.” If one decodes this sentence, it means it was acceptable to lie about the Conservatives in the 1990s because they were unpopular, and the media played up to the tales being peddled. Now, however, as the scales fall from everyone’s eyes and as the public becomes familiar with the tactics used by New Labour, we are told it is necessary to move on. Once spokesmen said that they had nothing to add to the words of Ministers. Now we are apt to hear that Ministers have nothing to add to the words of spokesmen.

The art of misrepresentation for political advantage is not new. While I am comfortable that, in my own Administration, we never set out to deceive, it would be naïve to suppose that no one will dispute the meaning and intent of specific statements and events: all Administrations face this.

But what sets this Government apart is the scale and pre-meditation of its spin operation. Nor did it start when New Labour came to office: as we have seen, it perfected this black art when it was in opposition. The result is a cynicism now so deep-rooted among the electorate that when the Government’s spin merchant-in-chief said spinning had gone too far, the public suspected it was only spin that made him say so. And when he eventually resigned, few were surprised that No. 10 briefed that spin would be put aside. I suspect that their attempt to spin against spin convinced no one but the most gullible or the most partisan.

It is fatal to the conduct of policy if the word of any Government is disbelieved until proven beyond doubt to be true. The erosion of trust has now reached the point where it is undermining the ability of the Government to call on the trust of the people – as recently, for example, on Iraq. New Labour cannot complain if their word is not taken at face value: it is their own behaviour that has brought this about.

This breakdown in trust between the Government, the media and the public has been recognised in the interim report of the Phillis Review. And some of the recommendations that have been made are welcome – in particular the need to re-establish clearer guidelines between the responsibilities of civil servants on the one hand and special advisers on the other. It is also to be hoped that the appointment of a new Permanent Secretary to oversee the Press Office will restore the trust that was destroyed by the political appointee. However, it remains to be seen whether structural adjustments of this sort are really enough to eradicate a culture which has grown strong and deep roots over the last six years.

A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that any Prime Minister’s Office could have been accused of distorting and misusing intelligence information to popularise the case for war and yet, whatever the reality, that has now become a widespread belief.

For the sake of the future conduct of policy this impression needs to be dispelled. In the case of the Iraq war, an independent Franks-type Inquiry – as established by Margaret Thatcher after the Falklands War – is the only way to restore the reputation of the Government. And yet, the Government refuses and points to the Inquiry being conducted by the Intelligence and Security Committee. Having myself set up this Committee I am well placed to judge that it is insufficient in this case. The Prime Minister determines what papers the Committee sees and has the right to excise from the resulting report anything he deems to be in the public interest. This will not do: when I established the Committee, I could not have imagined it would be investigating the actions of the Prime Minister himself. Nor that the Prime Minister would be judge and jury in his own cause.


The sorry state of affairs in the House of Commons is a by-product of two successive imbalanced Parliaments. A large majority in the Commons gives the Government, and especially the Prime Minister, very wide powers – in some ways, almost unchecked power. The system relies, therefore, on the governing party recognising the true temporary nature of its authority, and not abusing it: the greater the majority, the greater the need to respect the checks and balances of Parliament or – as Quintin Hailsham warned three decades ago – we become an elected dictatorship.

I have seen three Governments at close quarters. Margaret Thatcher had a secure majority in 1979 and, from 1983, a very large majority. Once a policy was decided upon, her majority enabled her to be unbending and authoritarian. Such is her reputation. But, at close quarters, I never saw her disrespectful of Parliament. It was never ignored, bypassed or disregarded.

After 1992, with no effective majority, the Conservative Government could not have behaved high-handedly to Parliament even if it had wished to – but I can state, with absolute honesty, whatever our majority, it would not have done so.

But New Labour has had no such inhibitions. What the Prime Minister has failed to understand is the importance and power of the traditions, customs and conventions that have shaped the values of our system of government and provided its checks and balances. The way our nation’s government works is not simply defined by the bare words and legal structures of legislation – it works because generations of Britons, in safeguarding their liberties, have established boundaries of acceptable behaviour and created rituals and rules that keep them alive.

That is why, through the generations, wise Governments have taken constitutional change gradually and, as far as possible, by consensus and after consultation. That is no longer the case.

New Labour, apparently contemptuous of our history, has swept away centuries of institutional values. Rushed, ill thought-through constitutional changes have been introduced in the name of modernisation – changes that imperil the soul of the Constitution and leave democracy and freedom weaker and poorer. Even where there is a case for change – as in the role and stature of the Lord Chancellor, and the abolition of Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales – the Government has bungled it. It neglected to consult, announced the changes as an off-hand consequence of a Cabinet reshuffle and then had to climb down as the new Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs had to don the Lord Chancellor’s wig and tights; and other Cabinet Ministers became, after all, territorial Secretaries of State.

Further diminution of Parliamentary authority will be accomplished within this Parliament if the Government enacts the proposed European Constitution as a superior overarching legal framework. The legacy of centuries of common law would be subordinate to ambiguous language interpreted and enforced by European institutions.

Such legislation is likely because, in almost all circumstances, democratic accountability in Parliament is suspended until the next election: even a cataclysmic rebellion can be ignored. With an 8% lead in votes in 1992 – and more votes than any Government received before or since – I was rewarded with a bare majority of 21. Today, with an 8.5% lead in votes, New Labour’s majority of 161 seats is awesome.

It is time for Parliament to reform, regain authority and increase the accountability of the Executive. Sadly, the reforms implemented by New Labour have reduced accountability and not enhanced it. The Government’s failure offers a real opportunity to the Conservatives: they must pledge themselves to enhance the power of Parliament and set out the manner in which this will be done.

New Labour’s style of governing – and its adoption of spin and soundbite as its weapons of choice – has done immense damage to politics. Such black arts are political tricks, not statesmanship: they are not what we need in our complex world. It is hardly surprising that the electorate shrugs its shoulders in despair and moves on, blotting political involvement from its collective mind.

The fate of politicians and governments does not matter: they are mortal and, in due time, are replaced by fresh administrations more tuned to the needs of the age.

But if the institution of Parliament declines; if respect is lost for it; if politics is seen as a game not as an essential bulwark of our constitution and our liberties; if Ministers bow the head to advisers; and if the public loses its trust in the integrity of government, then we are in serious trouble.

Is it too late for Parliamentary democracy? Has the watchman tolled the hour for our unwritten Constitution and Parliamentary system? I think not. I hope not. But the danger is clear and present.

And so is the need for action.

[1] – Such as consultation and if possible, consensus on constitutional change.

[2] – As in, for example, the Ecclestone, Hinduja and Mittal affairs.

[3] – Concerns have been expressed by Sir Nigel Wicks, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as well as by other civil service bodies. On 11 September 2003, the Committee declared that; “The Committee is disappointed that core recommendations have not been accepted. These include … That there is a rejection of the proposal that Special Advisers should be defined as a category of government servant distinct from the Civil Service and that Parliament should set a limit on the number of Special Advisers”.

[4] – “The Blair Style of Government”, 10 June 2002

[5] – In 1996/7, the Government employed 38 special advisers, of which 8 were in No. 10. By March 2003, there were 81 special advisers of which 27 were in No. 10.