The vote in the Commons today is the latest highlight of the long running Phone hacking-BSkyB-Leveson saga. It has been billed as an explosive vote that will tear the coalition asunder. The Parliamentary party has unanimously decided to abstain, a position I strongly support for very good reasons. We may well see traditional anti-Lib Dem rent-a-quotes like Peter Bone slamming us for betrayal but this is almost certainly a sign that we are doing the right thing. Indeed, given our rather shaky performance in how we conduct Government to date, this is a refreshing sign that we might be back on the road to the New Politics we championed so much during the general election campaign.
The crux of the matter is that David Cameron’s decision not to refer Jeremy Hunt to Sir Alex Allan, the independent advisor on the ministerial code is a very Old Politics way of doing things. Surely we are in Coalition though and should take the rough with the smooth? That’s the Conservative backbenchers’ argument but luckily invalid; they’ve enjoyed rebelling against the Government even more than I have. Whether Hunt is guilty or innocent, it is essential that he is subjected to due process, just as Baroness Warsi is at the moment. There’s no line in the Coalition agreement over how we should protect Ministers who are alleged to have done something questionable.
Why then shouldn’t we support Labour and back up our commitment to New Politics even further?
Firstly, Labour’s approach is Old Politics as well. Their motion is non-binding. It’s also political opportunism; their main aim is to destabilise the Coalition and if we voted with them we would have satisfied that goal without achieving anything for ourselves. Given that the Prime Minister has seemingly made up his mind, using up our political capital on a futile gesture probably isn’t the best idea. Whichever way we voted, the motion is not going to change things one bit.
This comes down to a misunderstanding of how Parliament works. An opposition day motion simply won’t yield the result many Lib Dem commentators think it would. It is a bit disingenuous referring to Labour’s support for Iraq and closeness to the Murdochs as a reason for not supporting their motion; we are a party that believes offenders can be rehabilitated after all. It’s clear to me that this is an issue that will agitate the membership and the Westminster village but crucially not the public. In the last week I’ve had perhaps one or two emails and letters on this, dozens on same sex marriage and hundreds on fuel duty. It’s clear to me that if we had any sense politically, we would be saving our battles against the Tories for issues that really matter and thankfully on this occasion we have; it is perhaps just a shame we didn’t do so on the cut in higher rate tax.
Ultimately, it is obvious that Jeremy Hunt should be referred to Alex Allan and I hope Cameron sees the light. Our voting for or amending the Labour motion will do precisely nothing to achieve this end and it may even make it less likely. Undoubtedly this is yet another reminder that how Parliament works is outdated and counter-productive but we should focus on that instead of hand-wringing that our MPs aren’t rebelling for no practical outcome. As one commenter on a previous LDV article on this said, Parliamentary activity has been reduced to a game designed to protect your own backside. We should probably change the game, rather than refusing to play by the same rules as everyone else.