Mark Prisk is a former Minister for Business and Minister for Housing, and is MP for Hertford and Stortford
I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to be a Minister, since 2010.
At BIS, I was able to help UK businesses innovate and grow, whether it’s our now-flourishing automotive and aerospace sectors, or the record number of small firms, which have started up since 2010. Whilst as Housing & Local Growth Minister, I was able to unlock ten major developments and 78,000 new homes, double the sales of Right to Buy and turn round our 24 Enterprise Zones.
So it was very disappointing when it came to an end. But that’s politics. You can either dwell on it, or move on. I have much more I want to do, so I’m moving on.
The Commons has moved on
The House of Commons has also moved on. And I’m not sure that Whitehall – civil servants or some senior Ministers – has really understood how far reaching the changes are.
First, we are living in a multi-party world. MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand this, but we English MPs are struggling with what this means for both getting elected and then how to do business, once in office.
Second, some of the current generation of MPs sees their role in the Party quite differently to previous intakes. As the number of people who regard themselves as natural Conservative or Labour voters declines, so MPs are responding to single issues locally, far more than they have previously.
Third, the selection of ‘A’ list candidates for Conservative seats has brought into Parliament people for whom party allegiance sometimes comes after their local priorities. Twitter, mass emails and social media add to this pressure from outside Westminster, which they find especially difficult to resist.
These cultural changes have, for example, helped to breathe new life into the Select Committees, largely for the good. With their membership elected and no longer chosen by the whips, these Select Committees have proven to be a genuine opportunity for individuals to shine and so are providing an alternative for Members to establish a reputation.
Change for Good
Some argue that this trend is peculiar to the current Parliament. Don’t believe a word of it. Whatever the result of the next election, the effect of these changes will accelerate.
So I have a suggestion for Whitehall – Ministers and their officials – about how they might conduct business in the future in the Commons.
At present, getting Bills and Motions through Westminster starts from the assumption that those on the benches behind Ministers will naturally support the measure. The whipping operation to identify and secure the votes is usually the last element of policy making. Occasionally, good Ministers – like my former boss Eric Pickles – prepare the ground and hold a few meetings with a handful of colleagues before any vote. However, by and large, the actual legislative process is something to which Downing Street, the Cabinet and most senior policy makers don’t give much thought.
More like Congress
This isn’t about having a bigger Whips Office. It’s about realising that business as usual isn’t working. We need to realise that the Commons today is more like the US Congress of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Members elected with a Party ticket, but with very strong constituency and single issue concerns. Members who need to be persuaded and involved early on in the policy process. Members who expect to see compromise amendments considered carefully, not swept aside. Members who will regularly organise and work as groups within Parliament, notwithstanding party allegiance.
The new normal
It will be messy and far more unpredictable. It will mean that winning a majority needs to be one of the first considerations in Whitehall, not a last minute instruction to the whips office. It will need different capabilities in Government, including first-class negotiating and people skills.
Some will say that this sort of operation already happens on the big issues. Perhaps it does. But the assumption in both major parties is that these ‘backbench revolts’ are aberrations. My point is they are not. They are the new normal.
So law-making in future is going to need government to think about how it can secure a majority for its measure and then work with the key MPs to develop that Bill. Treating constructive amendments with greater care and being organised in such a way to work with groups of MPs who have a particular concerns. Done properly it could make for better law.
Now I know that many former Ministerial colleagues will be horrified by the whole idea. Some will dismiss this as completely unrealistic.
Yet to go on with the pretence that nothing has really changed and that come the next election everything will revert to the old ways simply risks even more defeats for government – this one or the next.
Far better to accept that the House of Commons has changed, and to change how government makes the laws accordingly. Who knows, it might even result in better government.