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