Reform might have been the political watchword last week, but it’s hard not to see it all as business as usual: John Bercow elected Speaker as a result of a thumbed nose of a vote from Labour, and to silent, stony faces on the Tory benches; Gordon Brown issuing a raft of proposals without much in the way of consultation with anyone else (certainly not, er, the new Speaker); and Mervyn King speaking out again to the effect that the government’s economic policy is so much flim-flam. What’s most notable in all this is that, even as the Tories prepare for government, they don’t push home their advantage, presumably for fear of the whiff of triumphalism.
Gordon, though, is doing his best to present policy coherence, which is of course his only real chance to survive (slim as it may be). The Guardian made positive noises about the programme yesterday, which is at least a start. The Tories are so complacent that they can indulge in petty bickering (and their response to the new Speaker is undoubtedly that); Labour, on the other hand, are no longer the default choice. It is the opinion of some commenters in this parish that the public has shifted to the right. I’m not so sure they have, and to that end remain confident that, though they are now willing to vote Tory, they’re not committed to it. The cliché that our politicians are no longer ideological is at root an issue of the electorate: neither are they. They have moved to the Tories through disenchantment with Labour; policy renewal of this sort is the party’s only way back – but it is unclear if they have the breathing space to achieve it.
Kelvin MacKenzie was on Question Time on Thursday and, in between making me want to reach out into the television and slap him, he got huge applause for arguing that Parliament wouldn’t be renewed until the next election, when ‘about half’ the current MPs would in one way or another lose their jobs. Labour of course would suffer more in this rout than the other parties – not only do they have more MPs, they are as the government the most visible (though not the worst offending) party. It’s hard to see in this atmosphere how a self-renewing parliament is possible. Controlled by a wildly unpopular executive, and without authority of its own, it is a legislature dominated by a single party’s ideas of reform; not only does this guarantee a wounding legislative battle, it also makes very difficult the framing of any narrative which does not involve self-interest of one kind or another.
Policy – reform – is being driven by a groundswell of public opinion against the very people tasked with devising and enacting it. This bodes well neither for the policies or those who propose them. No wonder the Tories are staying so quiet.