Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Does Tony Blair Hate the Commons?

Tony Blair's hate-hate relationship with the House of Commons has surfaced again in this news story claiming that he has decided not to attend the debate being held in that chamber about the Iraq war on Wednesday, preferring instead the company of business leaders. Mr. Blair has an engagement to speak at the CBI Conference already in his diary.

Suggestions that Mr. Blair dislikes the Commons are legion, and his Commons attendance record as PM is one of the worst of any holder of that office. Since coming to power he has preferred to do business away from the troublesome chamber, becoming accused of adopting a presidential style that is unsuited to his actual constitutional role. When he moved the Chief Whip's office out of No. 12 Downing Street, replacing it with the office of his Director of Communications, it was seen as a sign by some commentators of his desire to push the management of the Commons as far off his radar as possible. The famous occasion of his government's Commons defeat by one vote - his own - seemed further evidence of his unwillingness to engage with the country's only elected chamber. Ironic, given that his premiership is entirely dependent on his party's Commons position.

Perhaps it is reciprocal to his own want of interest in the chamber, but the Commons under Blair seems to have become ever more troublesome. Prime Ministers were once assumed to be able to pass anything if they had an appropriate majority, thanks to the large element of payroll/wannabee/party loyalist lobby fodder at their disposal. Not Mr. Blair. Philip Cowley's highly recommended, and very entertaining, book "The Rebels" illuminates this process of lost deference in voting thoroughly - not for nothing is it subtitled 'How Tony Blair mislaid his majority'. [For students unable to cope with a whole book, no matter how accessibly written, I would at least refer you to Cowley's Politics Review article, and any notes you may have taken from his lecture speech.]

Tony Blair's attitude to the House of Commons is a key part of understanding his premiership, and as he heads to retirement it is unlikely to soften. One of his successor's priorities may well be to regain control of a difficult body - is that really a task for the dour Scot?

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