You can tell when Governments aren’t quite sure of themselves by the way in which they unveil their ideas. Those which they hope will be popular are trailed on the Today programme, and then big statements are made in the Commons, and further spinning goes on with journalists in the lobby afterwards. What tho’ if you’ve promised legislation on something but then been unable to agree internally what it should do?
In walks the Written Ministerial Statement. This Government is a dab hand at them, producing 30 or more in the last couple of days of any given session, just before the House rises for a Recess. They are produced without fanfare, and are a way of dashing out bad or inadequate decisions without the risk of serious scrutiny, by Peers or MPs.
So this was the fate of the “Constitutional Renewal Bill” Gordon Brown has repeatedly promised. You may remember that my impatience with Ministers over this led me to draft my own Bill, which would have made radical changes to our political system, ending the fundamentally the discredited double-agent role of the Attorney General, giving legal protection to the independence of the civil service, and allowing for a Citizen’s Assembly and referendum on the electoral system. Much of the detail was a faithful implementation of the PM’s earlier promises.
My move seems to have foxed Ministers somewhat, since they were faced with the none-too-presentable prospect of introducing “Constitutional Renewal Bill No 2”, so they have recast their final effort as the “Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill”. Sounds good but appearances deceive. It seems the endless Cabinet wranglings over this legislation have undermined any real zeal (if indeed it ever existed) on Brown’s part to enact substantial reform. In fact, what we have is a ragbag of largely unsatisfactory changes, which will do little or nothing either to democratise Britain’s constitutional arrangements or to reinvigorate public trust.
As it is, our Recess homework seems to be to pick through this messy muddle, and prepare for a battle to get some real reform back in the Bill by this Autumn.