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Knee-jerk rebellion

Tony Blair's parliamentary no-men are little more than political saboteurs.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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After rebel members of parliament dispatched the proposals for 90-day detentions in UK prime minister Tony Blair’s terror bill last week, speculation abounded about their next target. Newspapers published a gleeful list of ‘trouble spots’ that lie ahead for Blair – including education reform, ID cards, welfare reform, and 24-hour drinking plans – along with profiles of the Labour MPs who have apparently ‘declared war’.

These rebels are enjoying time in the limelight. Rushed from TV studio to TV studio, they are often presented as moral knights taking on an overbearing dragon of a PM. In fact, these rebels would perhaps be better described as saboteurs, who block and wreck. Parliament’s no-men aren’t doing democracy proud: they are tying it up in a series of ‘yeah buts….’

Whatever the issue, rebels’ objections seem to have the same flavour. Rather than raising specific objections with a bill, they’ll frown and say that they have ‘concerns’. Backbench MPs table a motion expressing ‘grave reservations’ about Blair’s education White Paper, which plans to give secondary schools more autonomy from local authorities. Helen Jones, a member of the health select committee, said ‘my impression is that there are a number of my colleagues who have concerns [about the education reforms]’ (1). In a comment piece in the Guardian, Fiona Millar, partner of Blair’s former press spokesman Alastair Campbell, says there is reason for MPs to have ‘deep anxieties’ about the reforms.

When asked to elaborate, rebels sound a bit like pensioners who complain about council plans for a new supermarket. It won’t work, they say. ‘The evidence is not yet there’, worries Jones. Critics of Blair’s ID card bill talk about the potential cost of the cards, and wonder whether they will really achieve anything. Alternatively, opponents highlight potential knock-on effects of new legislation. Theresa May, shadow culture secretary, described the 24-drinking law as ‘dangerous…which will fuel even more violence and anti-social behaviour’ (3). Labour MP Mark Fisher was concerned that 90-day detentions for terror suspects might cause a backlash among British Muslims.

There’s little sign of any principles here. Few mentioned liberty in their defeat of 90-day detentions or opposition to ID cards (see A bad day for Blair – an even worse one for liberty, by Brendan O’Neill). The objections often seem to be those of a pedant picking out faults.

The main aim is often just to block, to slow things down. Twenty-four-hour drinking laws are due to come in next week – but tonight the Tories are forcing a vote attempting to annul the Licensing Act, which was passed two years ago. Other rebellions aim to dilute government plans. Blair says 90 days’ detention without trial and so rebels say 28 days. (If he had said 28 days maybe they would have said 14 days.) In other cases, rebels seem contrarians: Blair wants to compromise on a ban on smoking in public, so they go for an outright ban.

The government’s opponents are presented as being on the side of the people, but it often seems to be more about a personal power trip. Reports talk about the rebels ‘flexing their muscles’ or ‘creating problems for Blair’. Former health minister Frank Dobson even quoted some bold bits of Shakespeare at Blair: ‘Fear no more the frown o’ the great. Though art past the tyrant’s stroke.’ (4) In interviews, rebels speculate about the damage they can do in the future.

Indeed, some are spurned or passed-over former ministers, and so have personal axes to grind. The list of repeat rebels includes Clare Short, former international development secretary; Michael Meacher, former environment secretary; Chris Smith, former culture secretary; Kate Hoey, former sports minister….

Of course, opposition and debate is what parliament should be for. Government bills should face scrutiny and political opposition, if government is not to become mere administration. It’s also true that much New Labour legislation is illiberal and half-cocked. But this rising tide of rebellion doesn’t help to freshen the parliamentary air. This is less healthy scrutiny than knee-jerk reaction. Just listen to the metaphors used. Blair is described as a ‘wounded animal’ pursued by MPs who have ‘tasted blood’: this suggests a mindless following of the pack.

These rebels aren’t setting out a new political stall – rather, they are parasitic on a flailing prime minister. Behind the bravado, theirs is perhaps also a plea for attention, an invitation for their concerns to be recognised and listened to.

Rebels are starting to get what they want. Government officials have said that some reform plans will be delayed, as ministers spend more quality time with the doubters. Plans to shake up invalidity benefit have apparently been postponed until the New Year at least. Minister for work Margaret Hodge said: ‘We are taking our time but this is a long-term reform. I’d rather we took a bit of time getting everybody on board.’ The new work and pensions secretary, John Hutton, said that he would spend a few weeks ‘listening to people’s views’; and a Downing Street official said there would be personal audiences for Labour MPs with ‘reservations’ about the plans.

Blair’s ‘modernisation agenda’ is bad enough in itself. What is perhaps even worse is a modernisation agenda that is constantly being sabotaged. Our political life is quite dull enough without things grinding to a halt, until ministers have had their ‘fireside chats’ with doubters. If the rebels can’t put up, they might be better to shut up.

(1) Survival of New Labour in doubt as rebels declare war, Scotsman, 4 November 2005

(2) Nowhere in the manifesto, Guardian, 15 November

(3) ‘Tory challenge to 24-hour drinking law’, Guardian, 15 November 2005

(4) ‘Blair’s head on the block as the rebels sharpen axe’, The Times, 12 November 2005

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Topics Politics

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