There is a lot that is cruddy about our democracy, from the piss-stained benches of the House of Lords to our absurd system of voting. Yet many would agree that the tradition of Prime Minister’s Questions is something to be proud of. The weekly opportunity for our elected representatives to hold the government to account, to have questions their answered, and to force the government to clarify its positions is arguably of some importance.
Nick Clegg however appears to take the sovereignty of parliament somewhat less seriously. This week he found himself in awkward position. Standing in for Cameron at PMQs, he declared that the Iraq war – which his coalition partners backed – had been an illegal war. As even the Telegraph now recognises, his position was correct. Less impressive, however, was the way in which he backed out of this tight spot. Realising that he had made a boo-boo, Clegg declared after the event that he had been speaking in a “personal capacity”. As the guardian’s Nicholas Watt noted it is “an apparently new constitutional convention that the second most senior member of the cabinet is now free to stand at the dispatch box and express opinions of his own that do not reflect government policy”.
The point is this: there is nothing wrong with Nick Clegg expressing purely personal opinions while talking to his wife, or addressing a public meeting or blogging. But PMQs exist so that parliament can get answers from the government. It is the means by which parliamentarians can push, and sometimes cajole, the government of the day into clarifying its positions and going on record regarding matters of public interest. Up until now, MPs could tell whether they were being answered or just fobbed off. The impact of the Clegg innovation is that MPs may have no way of knowing whether the government has given them an answer and made its position clear, or whether they have simply been treated to the personal musings of whoever happens to be at the despatch box. Thus Nicolas Watt is right to ask how MP’s will know in future “whether Clegg is speaking as deputy prime minister”.
To be fair to Clegg, I would imagine that he was motivated more by a desire to smoothly extract himself from a difficult situation than a desire to attack the power of parliament. Yet this too is telling. Nick Clegg is a Liberal, and parliamentary sovereignty is to Liberals what the welfare state is to social democrats. To call it a sacred cow is an understatement. That Clegg appears willing erode the sovereignty of parliament simply ease himself out of an awkward situation indicates, once again, that he is man who is not especially burdened by serious political principles or very strongly held beliefs.
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