The televising of Parliament is something it’s so easy to take for granted now that it’s hard to remember a day when it wasn’t the norm. Yet, in terms of the centuries-old timeline of the British Parliamentary system, it is a remarkably recent innovation; the Palace of Westminster was very much a closed shop to the electorate for most of its existence, with debates in the chamber only accessible through written accounts in newspapers 24 hours after the event; for generations, every Commons utterance accessed by the public was relayed via the Parliamentary reporter, a post once famously held by Charles Dickens in his early working life as a journalist. No doubt some of his uniquely rich characterisations in fiction received an inspirational boost as he observed some of those rotten borough rogues in action.
After a trial broadcast on BBC radio in the mid-70s – one that was met with strong opposition from many quarters keen to retain the ‘mystique’ of the process – the go-ahead was finally given for regular sound-only transmissions from Parliament in 1978. For the first time, the people could actually hear their elected representatives squaring up to one another on a daily basis. Previously, televised debates at locations such as the Oxford Union were the only opportunity to experience political jousting outside of the conference season or campaign trail, and even just hearing the debating chamber of the Commons was an ear-opening revelation. If anything, many listeners quickly realised why politicians were so eager to keep Parliament hidden behind closed doors; the behaviour of MPs was far from gentlemanly and the lid being lifted on their rowdy gatherings didn’t exactly raise their esteem amongst voters.
When television cameras finally made it inside Parliament in the mid-80s, caution over actually seeing MPs carrying on this way, and how it might negatively affect the public’s perception of them even further, led to the safer option of the Lords serving as the guinea pig. What MPs didn’t anticipate was that the retirement home for yesterday’s men would provide a platform for canny old campaigners to stage one last defiant dig at their successors. Harold Macmillan had stepped down as Prime Minister as far back as 1963, yet in 1984 the then-90 year-old elder statesman made his maiden speech in the House of Lords by delivering a damning critique of the Thatcher Government’s handling of the Miners’ Strike. Supermac had previously enjoyed relatively good relations with Mrs T, but as someone who had represented a North-East mining constituency in the Commons – and had indeed taken his title, Earl of Stockton, from the region – Macmillan seized his chance and let rip.
‘It breaks my heart to see…what is happening in our country today,’ he said. ‘This terrible strike, by the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies and never gave in…there is the growing division of comparative prosperity in the south and an ailing north and Midlands. We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people.’ Greeted with a standing ovation (no mean feat in the Lords) and widely reported, Macmillan’s missive came hot on the heels of the long-standing digs at Mrs Thatcher by her immediate predecessor Ted Heath; it was a timely reminder for all Prime Ministers that previous tenants of No.10 (especially those from their own party) are always lurking somewhere in the background, keeping a keen eye on the progress of those who superseded them and forever ready to pass withering judgement. So, should it come as a great surprise that the most damning criticism of Boris Johnson this past week has come from Sir John Major?
As far as I’m aware, the word ‘sleaze’ didn’t constitute part of Major’s criticism of Bo-Jo’s administration in the wake of the Owen Paterson affair, though perhaps that’s just as well. His own government was so mired in sleaze by its dying days that for a man who himself had been giving Edwina Currie one on the side to target Johnson’s infamous philandering would have been a tad hypocritical. However, the fact that the current controversy surrounding the Government centres around lobbying means that a man who’d led an administration bogged-down by ‘cash for questions’ has to tread carefully if his criticism can avoid the inevitable title of this post being evoked. Boris seeking to move the goalposts in order to prevent the 30 day suspension of the MP for what the Commons Standards Committee called ‘an egregious case of paid advocacy’ has been roundly condemned by opposition parties, though critics at Westminster should be careful what they do with those stones in their palms when hanging around this particular glass house. The practice of which Owen Paterson stands accused is far from exclusive to the Tories and can often appear endemic in Parliament.
The end result of the Conservative Party’s shabby efforts to block the recommendation of the Standards Committee to suspend Paterson – followed by a call for an overhaul of the MPs’ watchdog – is an imminent by-election, with Paterson choosing to quit his North Shropshire seat over the mess. In some respects, Paterson had a fair point when he bemoaned the right of MPs to appeal against judgements arising from the internal investigatory process, but the handling of such criticism seemingly on his behalf was done badly. Boris might have embarked upon yet one more U-turn in the wake of the affair, but further damage has been done to an already fairly damaged brand. John Major weighed into the debate on the ‘Today’ programme, adding another layer to a long-standing enmity that stretches back at least as far as Brexit. As a staunch Europhile and Remainer campaigner five years ago, the former PM (whose vote for Theresa May’s successor went to Jeremy Hunt) called Johnson’s Government ‘politically corrupt’; he went on to say that ‘this government has done a number of things that have concerned me deeply. They have broken the law, the prorogation of Parliament, they have broken treaties…they have broken their word on many occasions.’
When comparisons with the sleaze of his own administration were invariably raised, Major responded by admitting it was ‘immensely damaging’, yet covered his back by reminding the interviewer he’d set up a committee to investigate and prevent any recurrence of the ‘cash for questions’ scandal. He sees a stark difference with the way in which Boris & Co have reacted to their own scandal. ‘Over the last few days,’ he said, ‘we have seen today’s government trying to defend this sort of behaviour…there’s a general whiff of “We are the masters now” about their behaviour. It has to stop, it has to stop soon. I have been a Conservative all my life, and I am concerned at how this government is behaving. I suspect lots of other people are as well. It seems to me, as a lifelong Conservative, that much of what they are doing is un-Conservative in its behaviour.’
Like Boris Johnson, John Major succeeded to the post of Prime Minister following the forced removal of his predecessor – in both cases a woman, oddly enough – and then went on to win a General Election in his own right. It’s fair to say that Major was a largely unknown entity outside Westminster when he became PM, something of a blank slate after a decade of Mrs Thatcher dominating everybody’s lives; Boris, on the other hand, had been around as a household name for a long time when he grabbed the premiership, and the majority of his flaws and failings were already well-established. An attack from a former PM of Boris’ own party probably stings more than if, say, Tony Blair had launched a similar tirade; but at the same time Major hasn’t really said anything about Johnson and his administration that most of us didn’t think anyway. TV cameras had crept into the Commons merely a year before John Major became PM, whereas Boris Johnson has grown up in public before the full glare of the 24-hour media. His career is a political ‘Truman Show’ and just as we have watched his rise live on TV, we will also watch his fall when it happens. Given the state of the opposition, however, I’m not programming a series link into my telly just yet.
© The Editor