March 12 2006

In this toothless parliament ministers can mislead at will

Simon Jenkins

Profumo is dead. So is Profumoism. Two ghosts have walked the Palace of Westminster for a third of a century, covered in dust and briefly scaring ministers at night. They are Dugdale and Profumo, purveyors of morality by appointment to the political class.

Dugdale was a minister who resigned in 1954 (over a government land deal at Crichel Down) because of a mistake, unknown to him, by an official in his department. If the Commons could not rely on ministers to carry the can for sackable mistakes by their staff, it was said, government was no longer accountable to parliament, only to periodic election. Profumo resigned in 1963 because he told a lie about his relations with a prostitute. If ministers could lie with impunity to the house, once again there could be no accountability.

Both Dugdale and Profumo were hapless fall guys for embattled prime ministers. With help from the whips and a grovelling apology, both could have squirmed and survived. But the moral was drawn. Dugdale and Profumo were written into the constitutional highway code.

Nowadays that constitution is careering back and forth across the motorway like a drunk in a Porsche. On Friday Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, blithely announced as if by ukase that the English people would not get equal rights to the Welsh and Scots within the British parliament. Who says? He implied that even to ask was impertinent.

Democracy abhors a vacuum. If elected politicians refuse to police or scrutinise their own affairs, someone else will do it for them. That someone at present is the press, subjecting public figures to a modern version of trial by ordeal. If politics point blank refuses to set its house in order, the press will have to do.

The regime by which public figures account for their behaviour is now in tatters. In a single week Tessa Jowell’s domestic finances, Sir Nigel Crisp’s sacking from the National Health Service and Chai Patel’s peerage woes have all revealed the inadequacies of the patronage state. The dominance of one person, the prime minister, over this corner of the constitution is no longer defensible.

Evidence of this was given on Friday by the aforementioned Falconer on the radio, when he was reduced to defending the prime minister by telling two blatant untruths. In the first place he stated that it was “absolutely not” possible to buy an honour from Tony Blair. It is. I know people who have. The late Lord Montague of Oxford boasted the fact to me. How else is it explicable that everyone who has given £1m to Labour has been given a knighthood or a peerage? I know of one expectant donor who was denied an honour by Blair’s “collector” on the grounds that he had not yet given enough. Falconer must know that chapter and verse on this will come out one day. His final throw was a hilarious inversion, that it would be “quite wrong to bar donors from getting honours”.

Blair would do better to heed Northcliffe’s maxim in resisting the bribe of an honour: “When I want a peerage I will buy one like an honest man.” If honours are to be sold it should be open, uncoupled from parliamentary membership and the money put to charitable use. As it is, Blair has tested the patience even of his rubber-toothed Lords appointments commission. After waving through “people’s peers” and party donors for years, the commission appears to have protested against Labour’s latest batch of benefactors.

These include Chai Patel, a rich doctor who thought he and his money were as good as anyone’s. He has now heard that the commission is looking into some of his business dealings before letting him don the ermine. He has duly put a QC on the case, claiming that the imputation of unfitness to be a peer infringes his human rights and “will seriously affect my ability to continue working within the health and education sector”. At the very least this raises the glorious possibility that the prime minister might be sued for failing to deliver a peerage that was honestly acquired. Patel has a strong case.

The good doctor might be reassured on one point. Sir Nigel Crisp’s “retirement” peerage last week indicates that an inability to continue working in the health sector is now considered a positive qualification for a peerage. Crisp was plainly sacked because of the continued anarchy within the NHS, for which no minister will accept responsibility. Blair clearly felt that he needed to nod at Dugdale by offering Crisp a peerage and an “African consultancy”, as if rewarding him for a job well done. But under Dugdale the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, should have resigned.

Which brings us to Jowell. For the activities of a husband to be visited on a wife in public life is as tough as if things were the other way round. As with Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett, the scrutiny of the British press might be considered punishment enough for oversights committed under the ministerial code. But Jowell’s claim that a massive addition to her family fortunes possibly from a foreign head of state was not a declarable benefit under the various relevant codes not only defies their spirit; her plea of ignorance, for most people, also defies belief.

Jowell’s job is a matter for her boss. Of wider concern is the plausibility of the system that claims to have exonerated her, if only because a rigorous procedure is any minister’s best defence against the alternative of trial by media. We now come to Falconer’s second Friday whopper, that the cabinet secretary is “an independent official” in the matter of clearing Jowell’s name.

Sir Gus O’Donnell is not an independent official. He is an integral member of the prime minister’s Downing Street team. He works for Blair, who holds in his back pocket O’Donnell’s own peerage and prospect of “consultancies”, whatever that now means, nearer to home than Africa. Any claim of independence for O’Donnell’s office was invalidated by the Jonathan Aitken affair, when a minister virtually wrote his own exoneration for O’Donnell’s predecessor, Lord Butler. Does Falconer not recall this incident?

Jowell’s defenders argue variously that it is all her husband’s fault, that she herself has done no wrong, that the public does not care, that she obeyed the letter of the codes and that her colleagues support her. Such defences may suffice ad hoc but they are palpably defective as a process. They merely invite the press to keep up the scrutiny. Blair rejected the 2003 advice of Sir Alistair Graham’s committee on public standards: that such inquiries should be genuinely independent of his office. His rejection speaks volumes. Blair wants Dugdale and Profumo buried and all discretion to pass into his hands.

In opposition, Labour politicians queued up to abuse “Tory sleaze”. Jack Straw protested the arrogance of prerogative government. The late Robin Cook made a blood sport out of persecuting ministers. Blair himself declared sanctimoniously that his ministers would be “whiter than white”.

A prime minister must retain the right to keep or sack his ministers. Parliament retains the nuclear weapon of a no confidence vote. But if ministers disregard Dugdale and Profumo and refuse to resign when they have offended convention, broken codes, lied or declared themselves unaccountable for departmental incompetence, other means will be found to hold them to account. In Washington, congressional committees do this ferociously. Parliament, in contrast, behaves like a politicians’ professional association. Only when the profession is brought into disrepute (as with Mandelson and Blunkett) does it demand redress.

This is why Graham’s case for a standing commission to administer these rules is overwhelming. This is not the sort of committee that ludicrously suspended Ken Livingstone for a chance remark. It would supplant all existing inquiries and codify all existing rules for the conduct of public life, embracing honours, public appointments and conflicts of interest for those who now enjoy such power, privilege and immunity. Such a commission should be answerable not to parliament but to the new supreme court.

Falconer’s extraordinary performance on Friday indicates that the prime minister believes election entitles him to do what he likes. Under Falconer’s back-of-an-envelope constitution he is right. But in that case Britain’s politicians should stop complaining about the press. It is working overtime to do their job for them.