Once you write a story you often get new information sent to you. Now an MP has sent me the email sent out by Julian Lewis, Conservative MP for New Forest East and a supporter of John Bercow, to hundreds of MPs at midnight warning them of the ambush that William Hague had set up to get rid of the Speaker.I thought it worth publishing as a little bit of Parliamentary history to go with the earlier story. I see the Spectator has also picked up the email.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is someone the public recognise. Every week while Parliament sits he is seen on TV controlling the bear garden that is Prime Minister’s Questions.. His role is like a strict disciplinarian headmaster trying to control overgrown adolescents shouting down and jeering their opponents like kids in a school playground.
But John Bercow is more than that. He is probably the best known speaker since former Tiller girl Betty Boothroyd became a hit in the United States with her unique smack of authority in a British Parliament. And he has made big changes that are good news for democracy and the public.
It was therefore deeply depressing early on Wednesday evening when I was rung up by a very trusted source to tell me about a shabby plan to unseat him by changing the election rules for the next Parliament in May without people realising what was going on.
The master minds behind the plans appear to be William Hague, leader of the House and Michael Gove, the chief whip aided and abetted by Greg Hands, the deputy chief whip, and Cameron’s nasty Aussie election strategist, Lynton Crosby. The Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg also agreed to the ruse.
My source told me that throughout the day Tory MPs had been sent three texts by the whips designed to ambush Labour and push through an arcane rule change in Parliament which would mean curtains for Bercow. It told them that a plan to send hundreds of Tory MPs to canvass voters in the marginal seat of Hastings and Rye, held by Amber Rudd, had been cancelled and they all had to turn up on a three-line whip ( Parliament’s on pain of death) to hear Lynton Crosby outline their general election strategy in Portcullis House at 10.30 am.
What it didn’t tell them was that the order of business had been changed at the last moment and an obscure report changing the election rules of the next Speaker – traditionally elected by a public vote – would be debated in the Chamber. They proposed to change this to a secret ballot so ministers could get rid of him without their votes being recorded.The plan was for the debate to take place while Crosby was briefing Mps and the vote to take place at 11.30 am just as all Tory MPs were leaving the briefing. They would march in the lobby to vote on William Hague’s motion without really knowing what it said. And Labour MPs would know nothing about the shabby deal – most having returned to their constituencies- and government would have got rid of Bercow.
But then my trusted source got to work – and I tweeted and briefed a few papers and broadcasters- and it began to unravel. For a start the very independent minded Tory MP, Charles Walker, who chaired the procedure committee found his report had been hijacked by Hague. Furthermore it did not recommend voting changes in the election of a Speaker – the two Tories on the committee who wanted it – Sir Roger Gale and James Gray – had been soundly defeated. They then agreed to accept the status quo and the report was unanimous agreed. So Hague was being dishonest as well as sneaky. by proposing the change as it was not recommended by the report. And James Gray, to his credit, appeared so disgusted with Hague’s behaviour that he voted against the government.
Then it is clear that Angela Eagle,shadow leader of the house got wind of the deal and started summoning Labour Mps back and stopping the rest leaving. And Mr Bercow realised what the plot was about and suddenly granted two urgent questions on matters of policy which delayed the timing of the debate and the vote.
By the time it was debated yesterday the sneaky little proposal fell apart as there enough Labour Mps back in Parliament and enough Tories and Liberal Democrats rebelled to defeat the government by 26 votes.. But it had been a close run thing. Some 23 Conservative and 10 Liberal Democrat MPs revolted. Scroll down this to see the debate and vote.
This is scandalous for two reasons. Parliament’s committee of MPs are independent of government and had proposed a completely different motion to be debated.. Hague had no business changing the findings of an independent committee.
And Bercow himself is a good thing. He has made ministers far more accountable for their actions by forcing them to come to Parliament to justify decisions – on one issue we have had on this blog Theresa May has been far more scrutinised by MPs on the child sex abuse inquiry because Bercow forced her to come to Parliament by accepting urgent questions from MPs.
The coalition ministers hated this aspect of democracy because it was last minute and inconvenient They much preferred a supine Parliament. On that issue alone people should think about how they cast their vote on May 7.
Any political activist knows that party politics and charitable status don’t mix. And if they do and someone complains the effects can be toxic for the organisation and any leading figures involved.
The Smith Institute found this to its cost when it was torn apart by a Charity Commission investigation two years ago accusing its trustees and organisers of appearing to be too party political and too close to Gordon Brown. The damage to Labour was enormous and the Commission used its powers to hold a full inquiry and directed its trustees to reform the organisation or else.
This week it was the turn of the Tories – or did you notice it?
Atlantic Bridge- patron Margaret Thatcher and an advisory board composed of four prominent Tory Cabinet ministers, Liam Fox, George Osborne, William Hague and Michael Gove – was given a year to change its act- after facing exactly the same allegations as Labour. The charity which promotes the “special relationship” with the US – was found in a damning report to be little more than a promotion for Thatcherite party political beliefs and neo-Cons in the US.
But one reason why it may not have hit the headlines is that the Charity Commission was far softer on the offending Tory charity. For a start its press officer advised after they received the initial complaint from Labour activist Stephen Newton that the word investigate could not be used as they had not launched a formal investigation. Instead the phrase “engaging with the charity to address concerns” through a regulatory compliance case was used instead.
Now nine months later the report has been issued with the almost same findings against The Smith Institute. The key phrase is the finding that the charity is “promoting a policy which is closely associated with the Conservative Party.”
But instead of a six month direction the charity has been given a year to change and only then is there a threat against the charity’s trustees of further action.
But more significantly while it is clear that the charity had broken the rules for at least seven years nothing is being done about its tax free position.
These are not minor sums. This was the charity that was charging £700 a seat for VIPs and £400 a seat for ordinary mortals to hear Henry Kissinger speak at a luxury London hotel last year and see him presented with a Margaret Thatcher Medal of Freedom. The commission’s report discloses that the charity admits this event was part of a tax free fund raising drive. The donors – probably mainly higher rate taxpayers – could claim the money against their tax returns. And it is now clear that Atlantic Bridge can’t claim the same charitable status as the National Trust.
So why hasn’t this been referred to Revenue and Customs? Why aren’t more searching questions not being asked of the advisory panel of Cabinet ministers who presided over an organisation that clearly broke charity rules?
Atlantic Bridge is not actually being repentant either. In a statement they reluctantly promised to follow the Commission’s ruling and have taken down their website for “updating”. But it expressed its “ disappointment” at the Commission’s ruling and refused to answer any questions about the role of their trustees or advisory panel.
The Charity Commission is being a little too careful in handling this scandal. I wonder why.
A similar version of this blog has now appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.
Lord Ashcroft must have been laughing all the way to the tax office for the last decade if the revelations produced by the release of Whitehall memos telling the story of the scrutiny of his peerage are anything to go by.
They show that the ultra canny lord successfully managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the scrutiny committee, enlist the loyal support of leading Tories to keep his non dom status and befuddle and exasperate some of the country’s leading mandarins. No wonder he is a billionaire, pity any business partner negotiating over the small print with him.
By concentrating on the semantic difference between being a “long term resident” rather than a “permanent resident” Lord Ashcroft managed to both escape paying tax and still get a peerage with all the status and influence that implies in both Parliament and the business world.
It is totally clear from the reaction of Baroness Dean that the scrutiny committee believed that he had agreed to the terms and conditions to pay tax in order to get his peerage. But in fact under a deal negotiated by the then chief whip, James Arbuthnot, and Sir Hayden Phillips, the Whitehall mandarin in charge of the negotiations, it was nothing of the sort.
What yesterday’s hearing by the Commons Public Administration committee reveals is a question mark over Sir Hayden’s role – whether he knew that the deal he was negotiating had let Ashcroft off the hook. Certainly Sir Hayden was probably fed up to the back teeth with the issue and probably wanted it sorted out. But it is rather surprising that he insists he did not know of the tax implications.
What I have been told by a very senior Whitehall source is that Sir Hayden happily took on the job because another figure Lord Wilson, then Cabinet Secretary, didn’t want his hands dirty over such a hot political potato. It is therefore possible that the jovial Sir Hayden got out of his depth in dealing with such a slippery customer as Lord A.
This leaves the issue of how much senior Tories knew about it all. It is crystal clear that Arbuthnot knew exactly what was going on. He seems to have been up to his eyes in securing Ashcroft the peerage. I find it hard to believe that William Hague was also in ignorance. Ashcroft is very close to Hague, funds his Parliamentary office and jets around the world with him as shadow foreign secretary. Even at that time his office could have had a look at Ashcroft’s chequebook- and see where the donations came from. So it is possible that Hague could have known at the time, not just in the last few months, that Ashcroft was not paying tax.
Two figures come out well in this sorry saga. Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the committee, who stuck to his guns and held the inquiry, despite a childish boycott by Tories on the committee. The other is Gus O’Donnell, the present Cabinet secretary. By releasing the documents rather than keeping them secret, he has shed a lot of light on a very murky tale about the award of peerages. Both have done voters a great service in the run up to the election.
This blog is also on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.