We have a president, now for a Parliament

SIMON JENKINS

Does Tony Blair have a nightmare? Does he see his "confidence smile" freeze into a rictus? Tired eyes watch a red carpet roll out before him encircling the globe, flanked by slow-moving limousines and fast-talking aides? Ahead shimmers a Cheshire Cat - is it Assad or Sharon or bin Laden? - grinning from a conference lectern. The air is filled with a susurration of sound bites. Suddenly Mr Blair's power suit fills with helium. It lifts him far above the desert and then gently pops. He awakens with a jolt to find himself mere Prime Minister, addressing the boring British House of Commons.

Presidentialism is back in vogue. Mr Blair is said to spend too much time in a private jet showing the world's troublespots to admiring journalists. No Prime Minister since Walpole has shown less concern for Parliament. Cabinet government is reduced to a reporting session. Despite the scotching of an early attempt to give Mr Blair a proper palace in Whitehall's Dover House, he moved a complete political and personal court into Downing Street. The Chief Whip was evicted from No 12 and replaced by a press officer, Alastair Campbell. Nothing could be more symbolic of presidency than to give the media such priority over Parliament.

Today Mr Blair is to crown - or perhaps "coronet" - his authority by declaring that two thirds of the House of Lords will, after all, be chosen by political patronage. No dissenters need apply. The Queen's "my lords" will in future be "his lords". This U-turn on a manifesto pledge of a democratic Upper House is regarded by the political community as entirely within the Prime Minister's discretion. No realistic check exists on his constitutional amendment. As Gilbert's Lord Chancellor "embodied the law" so the Prime Minister embodies the constitution.

In a forthcoming book on the premiership, the Labour MP Graham Allen suggests that Mr Blair should "come out" as a real president. Since high-profile government leadership is inevitable, Mr Allen thinks that "we should welcome and democratically control it". A former whip, he wants to see Downing Street and its apparatus formally separated from Parliament. MPs have long been treated as the poor bloody infantry of British politics, now rendered obsolete by the "smart" technology of spin. Under Mr Allen's scheme, a President Blair would be separately elected. MPs would be reinvented as scrutineers and legislators, as in America or on the Continent. The normal response to this old chestnut is from the Panglossian sceptics. Why bother, they say, when the British constitution is anyway a sham fortress concealing the realpolitik of power.

Parliament between elections has no more power than the monarchy has during them. Prime ministers are not presidents. They must be chosen by the majority in the House of Commons. But as long as that majority is secure, which is most of the time, their power is absolute. What is new? Besides, the presidential gibe has been tossed at most of Britain's big-time leaders. Lloyd George, Churchill, Wilson and Margaret Thatcher were all presidential, spiced up as cabalists, egomaniacs, elected dictators and bossy-boots. Likewise, the whips have always been a scourge, and patronage has always been a carrot. Titles have always been bought. Parliament has always been a rubber stamp and MPs always lobby fodder. The press has always been powerful. The Blairites - how quaint seem the words Socialist or Labour - agree with this. They protest that they are Post-Modern politicians. They hold that constitutions should reflect reality, not historical form. All Mr Blair is doing is treating spades as spades. He is calling the constitution's bluff. He is testing its checks and balances to destruction. Why not? He is a busy man.

Thus he has shown that Cabinet government is no more than a function of its component personalities. If they are pygmies, it will not function. None of the present Cabinet can hold a candle to its boss, with the possible exception of Gordon Brown. But he is a lone wolf. If that changed, so might the role and power of Cabinet.

Likewise, it is horses for courses in Parliament. Mr Blair has a huge majority. There is no point in "nursing a constituency" which offers no threat. Speakers, Chief Whips, Leaders of the House can be disregarded because they do not matter. Mr Blair can treat his elected assembly as did Mussolini or the European Union, by overpaying and overhousing its members in return for somnolence. As for the House of Lords, what is power if you cannot give your friends their heart's desire, a title and a club? All this means is that in politics, as in war, might is right. It suggests that the plural elements in the British constitution operate only under a hung Parliament or a split government. This is absurd. Even realpolitik must recognise Acton's law of absolute corruption. Mrs Thatcher thought that the "consent of the governed" to her activities could override the tolerance of Westminster. She was wrong. She ignored Cabinet government and ignored her parliamentary support and it was her undoing.

Democracy tends to produce its own antibodies, and not just from the media. Mr Blair's proposed House of Lords is to be a cipher. If elderly politicians want somewhere warm to meet at public expense, this is for discussion with social services. Mr Blair's cynicism in this matter is total. Tony Benn pointed out the folly of creating a peer "for life", since a leader lost all hold over him. Some might cheer and welcome a potentially more independent Upper House. But Downing Street is wise to that. The new House will have almost no power of restraint over the executive. The new Lords will be impotent in every sense of the word, a day centre for spent volcanoes.

The Commons may not lie so quietly. The new Leader of the House, Robin Cook, has clearly marked Mr Blair's card. Mr Cook is playing stern Highland "factor" to absentee ducal landlord. While Mr Blair trips the light fantastic on the world stage, Mr Cook is charged with keeping the home estate loyal and in order. Without the Highland revenues, the salons of Park Lane soon turn to dust.

This home estate cannot be taken for granted. Mr Blair may treat Parliament's support as unconditional, but nothing is for ever. Mr Cook wants to make it conditional. He does not go as far as Mr Allen, but he certainly wishes to galvanise the Commons as scrutineer and legislator. He wants proper working hours and draft Bills submitted to select committees for prior debate. He wants the committees not to be selected by the whips.

Mr Cook knows this is hopeless as long as every MP dreams of a red box on his lap. He must therefore create a new career stream of "parliamentarians", with committee chairman at its apex and the resources and status to match a Cabinet minister. The Commons chamber is now mere theatre. The committees are the Commons of the future. But they must be empowered not only to roast ministers on television but also to vet laws and goad backbenchers to revolt against governments. Such power cannot exist only when prime ministers have small majorities.

Some democracies, especially those with PR, are so checked and balanced as to be all but inert. That is not Britain's problem. Britain's leaders can do whatever they like, including rewrite constitutions to their periodic liking. What they conspicuously lack is scrutiny, review and accountability. They lack external control. This does not make for good government, witness the recent sagas of BSE, foot-and-mouth, Railtrack and drugs policy. Witness today the incoherent defence of Britain's role in the "War on Terror". Parliament is the proper place for this scrutiny, but it has to be Parliament reformed.

Mr Blair and his team blatantly disagree, claiming the constitutional licences, privilege and patronage of an early Stuart court. Battle must be joined. There is truth in the saying that the British never stop fighting their Civil War. Mr Cook is duty bound to lead on Parliament's side. He must marshal his Roundhead troopers and station them firmly on Downing Street's lawn. The Cavaliers must be defeated. Mr Cook must stay until he wins. Fail this test and the Commons will languish in its gilded cage and dream of hung Parliaments for ever.

simon.jenkins@thetimes.co.uk