The Conservative Party’s new Code of Conduct is problematic. For example, it is far from clear whether a process under which the Party Chairman will appoint panel members to investigate complaints is sufficiently independent and, therefore, credible. However, to explore the trees would be to risk missing the wood. Yesterday’s release of the code was part of an elaborate game of pass the parcel being played out between the Prime Minister and the Speaker.
To cut a tortuous story short, John Bercow does not want to take more responsibility, if any at all, for the conduct of MPs. The nub of his Commons statement last Monday was that the political parties must sort the matter out themselves. In doing so, he took a thinly-veiled swipe at Conservative MPs in general, of whose number he once was one, and at the 1922 Committee in particular: “the Prime Minister’s letter to me, written as leader of the Conservative party, very candidly admits the difficulties the Conservative Party has had in introducing the sort of mandatory grievance scheme that some other parties have introduced in recent years,” he said.
Theresa May takes a different view. Just as the Speaker’s statement was a guide to his view, so her letter to him yesterday, which accompanied the release of the Code, is a guide to hers. “Whilst there is undoubtedly a role for political parties to play, it cannot be right when dealing with serious issues relating to behaviour in Parliament that vulnerable or concerned people are expected to navigate different grievance procedures according to political party,” she wrote. “Neither can it be right that such difficult issues themselves are dealt with on a party political basis, or that no support should be provided for those with no political or party affiliation.”
In short, the Prime Minister is suggesting that MPs are ultimately not the property of their parties, but of their constituents, and that it follows that the House in which they serve those constituents has the primary responsibility for policing MPs themselves. She is right. The sum of her letter was: “now then, Mr Speaker. You’ve asked to see the disciplinary procedures of the political parties. Here is ours. So now that you’ve seen it, can you please get a move on, take the lead in creating a new Commons complaints procedure – and do your job?” On Monday, she will seek to push him to act, when she meets him, alongside other party leaders at Westminster.
In one sense, there is nothing much new to the Code: it is more or less a cobbling together of what the Conservatives already do. In another, it is a novel departure – and a dangerous one for a Prime Minister who recently gambled on an election, saw her majority vanish, must oversee the national challenge of Brexit, and has just lost a Defence Secretary. To put it plainly, most Tory MPs are men; some do not want to be formally accountable to one new complaints procedure, let alone two; and many believe that they are now vulnerable, in the wake of Michael Fallon’s effective dismissal, to politically-correct definitions of harrassment, not to mention vexatious claims.
This site believes that these MPs are wrong to oppose a new, formal and proportionate Commons system that seeks proper redress against bullying and abuse – whether sexual or otherwise, and whether undertaken by MPs or anyone else. But that they are mistaken does not leave May any more secure. Conservative MPs who, like Grant Shapps, believe she should be ousted may currently be finding their phone lines busier now than they were previously – for all the lack of any obvious successor.