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PANORAMA: 1997

An Insiders View of the Political System
by Chris Moncrieff

The House of Commons is constructed like a cockpit. The two principal parties, in theory, glare at each other across the Chamber. The place is purpose-built for confrontation. And it will all begin again in earnest when Members of Parliament (MPs) return to the Palace of Westminster after the summer break on Monday, 27 October.

Even the terminology used is war-like. The two opposing sides are said to be two sword-lengths apart, conjuring up visions of political debate boiling up into a physical and bloody clash of arms.

But despite all this, and all the imagery of battle, and all the furore that sometimes overwhelms the Commons, the fact remains that Westminster flourishes largely through a sophisticated system of nods and winks, of bargaining and of deals being struck between even the most bitter of political opponents.

It is consensual politics which not only keeps the system going but which also oils the works. Otherwise the whole machinery could splutter, stall and seize up altogether.

This goes on right from the most momentous decisions a Government may take, down to the minutiae and trivia of life at Westminster.

Politicians of all complexions and on all extremes of the spectrum know that the system can only work if compromises are struck with the enemy and agreements reached _ but generally well out of the public gaze.

Much of this _ though not all of it _ is undetected from outside. It cannot be spotted amid the smoke and fury of the public clashes in the Chamber of the Commons itself.

The most obvious example of that in recent years is the offer made by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and eagerly accepted by Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, for some Liberal Democrats to be included on a key Cabinet Committee.

This move puts Paddy Ashdown's fingernails _ although not much more _ on the levers of power. But it gives him and his party a sense of power, which is what is important.

The cynics say (and they could be right) that this has been done merely to isolate the Conservatives at Westminster and also to blunt the Liberal Democrats' ability to attack the Government when they think fit.

For a party which has cosied up to its enemy and which may be privy to a limited number of state secrets will feel inhibited about berating the Government in public.

But whatever the truth of the matter, this is an example of political opponents, who fought each other into the ground at the hustings, realising that fraternising brings advantages to both sides.

How all that is viewed, however, by the poor infantry, the party workers who sweated blood during and before the election campaign is not, of course, even considered.

The House of Commons even employs someone _ the present incumbent is a man called Murdo McLean _ who liaises between the two main whips offices, whichever party is in power.

When you hear in the Commons the words, ``this is being arranged through the usual channels'', the ``usual channels'' are Murdo McLean. It means that warring parties, which fight each other hammer and tongs in public, are secretly conniving with each other for their mutual convenience.

What they are actually doing is making life bearable for each other. There are occasions _ but they are extremely rare _ when a Bill, for instance, is too utterly controversial to brook the idea of any kind of cooperation between sides.

Even then, when life becomes too intolerable, there may be a reluctant meeting of opposing minds to ease an impossible situation.

The things that are discussed include the timing of divisions, so that MPs know unofficially what time they need to be in the Chamber, the length of time the Opposition would like to spend on specific parts of the Bill, and how late that night they want to sit.

This prevents Bills, whether contentious or not, projecting the Commons into a state of chaos and giving the green light to an unreasonable Opposition exploiting Parliamentary rules for the benefit of nobody.

It means that voices of dissent get a fair but not excessive hearing. And it brings rationality and logic to what could otherwise become an uncontrollable shambles.

There is another area, too, where MPs, otherwise hostile to each other, reach personal agreement on a basis which prevents them having to stay all night and every night in the House of Commons, bereft of sleep.

It is called "pairing" and it is a system by which, for instance, a Conservative MP has a regular "pair" who is a Labour MP. They agree with each other _ subject to the endorsement of the whips _ both to miss specific votes, so that their absence cancels each other out.

Although officially neither Tory nor Labour whips offices' recognise such an arrangement, they nevertheless accept that it goes on, and do nothing to stamp it out. Indeed, they connive at it by agreeing or otherwise to a "pairing" arrangement.

One area where consensus is to be found in the current British Parliament, and has been so for a quarter or a century, irrespective of which party is in power, is over the question of Northern Ireland.

There has been constant accord on the main issues between Labour and Conservative, although there has been bickering on some of the lesser issues. It would send out all the wrong signals if Westminster was itself at war on the best way of dealing with the problem.

Similarly, there will always be this kind of coalition, if not formal, in situations like the Falklands conflict or the Gulf War when British troops are fighting.

But it is on the trivia of Parliamentary life as well, that consensus plays an important role. There are all sorts of all-party clubs, like for instance chess, bridge, cricket, football, stamp-collecting, indeed almost every occupation under the sun, where political partisanship plays no role whatsoever. The doors are open to everybody!

In one recent example of non-confrontational politics, the former Conservative Heritage Minister David Mellor, who lost his seat in the May General Election, was named as the chairman of the new Football Task Force. His job will include tackling ticket over-pricing, improving access to grounds for the disabled and cracking down on racism.

It was a move by Mr Blair that went down well with soccer fans. The Football Supporters' Association cited Mr Mellor's genuine passion for the sport - he is a keen Chelsea Football Club fan - as well as his track record as a capable Westminster insider.

Mr Mellor has warm relations with both the Prime Minister and Sports Minister Tony Banks, another staunch Chelsea fan, who will also sit on the taskforce.

Similarly, there are many all-party committees which are run on amicable, non-sectarian lines, which flourish at Westminster. Equally, there is rarely any friction with the all-party committees when they go abroad on fact-finding missions.

Life would be intolerable if the hurly-burly of political warfare, as seen in the Chamber of the Commons, was allowed to spill over into all aspects of Westminster life.

Even so, many people believe life is like that at Westminster. And they were truly surprised at the occasion when John Major (as Prime Minister) had his two arch enemies, Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, publicly in fits of laughter when he told them a story about his sunburnt goldfish.

Outside Westminster, people did not think such camaraderie was possible. It is not only possible, but essential to avoid the whole edifice from collapse.

  

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