The country is cynical about politics – many people know they don’t like Labour any more, but they aren’t sure what the Conservatives stand for. There is a belief that politicians are devoid of principle, and are simply chasing power, with all the trappings and rewards for it. But it wasn’t always like this.
When Tony Blair and new Labour were elected to government in 1997, they promised an end to "years of Tory sleaze". Indeed, in his conference speech in 1994 he said that new politics "…. means being open. It means telling it like it is."
Recently four Conservative MPs put down written questions to the Deputy Prime Minister asking about his duties, responsibilities, functions and powers over the summer. John Prescott’s response was "I refer the hon. Members to the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) at Prime Minister’s Questions on 12 July 2006, Official Report, columns 1384-85".
A quick check of the record for that particular session of Prime Minister’s Questions shows that the only quote from the Prime Minister on the issue of the Deputy Prime Minister was "I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the arrangements are exactly the same as they have been in previous years." Obviously embarrassed by the question, and the way it was being pressed by David Cameron, he then went on to a fairly standard speech about how Labour are great and the Conservatives aren’t.
This fails to answer any of the questions that were put down by the four MPs. For example, Eric Pickles, my own local MP, asked what official events he attended between May 26th and June 2nd. There was no answer or even an attempt to answer this question. In short, at the same time that it is being reported that a new Government department employing 18 people is being created for him, John Prescott is refusing to account for his actions as Deputy Prime Minister over the summer.
The Ministerial Code states that:
- Ministers have a duty to Parliament to account, and be held to account, for the policies, decisions and actions of their departments and agencies;
- It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;
- Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest which should be decided in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
None of this is reflected in John Prescott’s answer.
I’m not going to pretend to be surprised at this – but it does concern me. It is little examples like this that show the contempt many of the ruling classes in modern politics have for the people they supposedly represent and govern. John Prescott may feel that the questions came from Conservative MPs looking to stir the pot – but if there wasn’t a pot there in the first place, they’d have to put their spoons away.
New Labour have squandered the political capital they were able to make out of “sleaze”. Despite promising a new kind of politics, they have failed to do so – preferring frequently to ignore the large elephant in their own room. Indeed, it is worse – Andrew Grice in the Independent recently wrote: “John Major may have had some funny friends in Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken but there was not even a whiff of financial sleaze around the former Tory prime minister.” The result: an increasing cynicism amongst the public that all politicians are as bad as each other.
David Cameron is still driving through a significant policy review – as part of that, it is vital that the party address this issue. The “new politics” is important – to give the public the confidence and the trust that most politicians are in politics for the right reasons. Otherwise, the long term impact on our democracy could be fatal.