Both my correspondents spluttered that Boris was the very personification of the parliament he now vilifies. One of them even questioned why the Telegraph hadn't looked into Boris's expenses. Boris's recipe for the future is that all MPs should stick two fingers up to the whips - not something I remember him doing a lot of in his time in the House of Commons, but there you go...
They file through the lobbies to vote – and what are they voting on? Nine times out of 10, they haven't a clue. All they know, because their BlackBerrys tell them, is whether the whips want them to vote Aye or Nay; and so they shuffle obediently on and then, with a fatuous sense of a job done and a public served, they return to their dinners or the yielding arms of their companions of the evening; and yet another unnecessary and ill-drafted law prepares to enter the statute book; and the put-upon people of this country will be chivvied or taxed or cajoled or coerced in some new way by MPs who have only the vaguest understanding of what they have done.
I have lost count of the number of times I have sat through debates, after which my colleagues have begun their speeches with the words, "This has been an excellent debate", and I have wanted to shout, "No! It hasn't been remotely excellent.
"It has been a collection of cut-and-paste Lego-brick speeches in which people have been speaking not from the heart or direct knowledge of the issue, but because the whips have suggested it would be a good idea to speak."
We want a new breed of MPs who will consistently tell the whips to get stuffed; who will smash the brutal and intellectually enervating system of party discipline that turns Westminster into a kind of Seventies Leyland car factory, apathetically turning out badly assembled laws to plague the people of this country.I know where he's coming from, but this is very simplistic and populist. What he's suggesting is that Parliament should be made up of 646 independents, with very little party allegiance. That may reflect the prevailing mood, but it would lead to the seizing up of our system of parliamentary government.
We need far fewer laws and far fewer MPs (400 would do fine). My advice to constituency parties is not to hire candidates unless they promise two things: to read every line of every Bill they are called upon to pass; and to vote according to their conscience, and not according to the wishes or orders of the whips.
That may gum up the machinery of law-making, and that would be all to the good. It may make it impossible for Parliament to produce yet another annual Criminal Justice Bill. It may make it more difficult for MPs to produce yet more laws telling teachers, doctors, nurses and other public
servants how to manage their vocations.
If we had fewer MPs, and they were forced to concentrate on what they were actually doing, we would have much less legislation, and I can't think of a better way of saving us all time, trouble and money.
We need a Parliament of rebels, and we need it now.
I agree with him that politicians of the future need to be more individualistic and take far more interest in the legislation they are passing, but without a degree of whipping no government - or opposition, for that matter - would be able to function. Yes, whipping is too heavy at the moment, but a reactive move to the other side of the whipping pendulum would not improve matters. So what would?
New MPs must commit themselves to attending debates in the chamber more often and make it the national debating forum it is supposed to be. But the government must play its own part too. Instead of being addicted to passing legislation, it should allow far more parliamentary time for opposition debates and debates on the big issues of the day. When was there a long debate, for example, on the economic crisis? Graeme Archer points out today that MPs were denied the chance to vote on DNA sample retention. Why? No wonder voters see Parliament as being irrelevant.
MPs must assert themselves and their independence. Too often they are consumed by their own ambition to climb the greasy pole of politics. They know that any dissent is likely to be rewarded either with a further year of languishing on the backbenches or being appointed to Standing Committee A on European legislation. Rebellion for its own sake should never be rewarded. But conscience and conviction driven rebellion should be seen in a more positive light by the whips than it is at present. Government whips see there role through a very narrow prism - that of enabling the government to get its legislation through, with nothing else mattering. That needs to change.
When you get elected to the House of Commons any form of career planning goes out the window. You're randomly appointed to standing committees on bills you have no knowledge of or interested in. Indeed, if you do have knowledge of the subject you can be sure you won't be appointed to that committee, because heaven forfend that you should wish to table amendments or make a speech in committee. You role is to sit there for hours, preferably mute, and get on with your constituency correspondence, while the front benches do their pre-arranged stuff through the "usual channels". It's this which needs to change as lies at the heart of what's wrong with parliament today.
If you're lucky, and have kept your snout clean you might be appointed to a junor frontbench role, and then be expected to vote with your party every time. Any semblance of original thought goes out the window. It's likely that your frontbench role will, again, not be in an area where you have any expertise at all. You'll have to learn about your portfolio, and just when you think you might have got the hang of it and met all the relevant people you are reshuffled, with no consultation, to another random portfolio. Chances are you only got it because the first choice turned it down. But you accept it because you fear if you don't you'll be on your way out. Rarely does the Chief Whip ever sit you down and discuss your future in advance of it being decided for you.
One of the best things which could happen is for political parties to take a leaf out of the book of private sector organisations and develop some proper career planning structures for their MPs. being on the front bench should never be the be all and end all for any politician. Just being an MP ought to have enough job satisfaction on its own. There has been some progress on this by making Select Committees more powerful. Interestingly, Michael Fallon turned down a front bench Treasury role because he wanted to continue on the Treasury Select Committee. I can see more of this happening in the future. The Conservatives in government should also revive the backbench policy committees which did so much good work during the Thatcher and Major years.
As ever, Boris writes a thought provoking article, but his recipe is flawed and simplistic. There are many ways of enhancing the role of parliament and its reputation which he doesn't mention and which I haven't talked about here, but I have gone on long enough.
What would you do to revive the independence of Parliament and encourage the public to take a closer interest in its proceedings?
UPDATE: EU Referendum has a good post on this subject.