concern here is that there should be a clear distinction between the
legislature (Parliament) and the executive (Government).
executive thus be separated, the obvious and logical outcome is that the prime
minister and his ministerial team would no longer be Members of
Parliament. Prime ministers would have
to be elected in their own right, a process which would reflect the
increasingly presidential nature of general election contests.
would correct a manifest unfairness in our current arrangements exemplified by
Prime Minister David Cameron who gained office by virtue of 33,973 votes in the
2010 general election. All those votes were cast in the constituency of Witney,
which boasted 78,220 electors. The rest of the nation was not allowed to vote
for the man. He may have been elected as an MP, but he was not elected as prime
minister through a general franchise.
By contrast, it is
ironic then to see the noted commentator, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan
elsewhere complain about “the disturbing contempt for democracy at the heart of
the EU”, because of its unelected commissioners and the commission president,
when less than 0.2 percent of the 46 million-strong electorate in this country
are allowed to vote for their prime minister.
Mr Cameron holds office on the back of 10,703,654 Conservative votes, from an
electorate of 45,844,691, his franchise represents only 36 percent of the votes
cast and less than a quarter (23
percent) of the overall electorate, Mr Hannan is in no position to complain
about lack of democracy in the EU – if our own elections are taken as the
As to why the
general issue of “separation of powers” is so important to us, a useful port of
call is the Wikipedia entry. It tells us that this need first emerged in
ancient Greece. The state was divided into branches, each with separate and
independent powers and areas of responsibility so that no branch had more power
than the other branches. The normal division of branches is the executive,
legislature, and judiciary.
Here, the defect
in the British system is immediately evident, stemming from our transition from
rule by an absolute monarch, to a system of constitutional monarchy. The
executive that emerged to challenge the power of the king now comprises the
prime minister and cabinet. But, in holding the power previously held by the
king, it has effectively become the king. Thus, as long as Parliament is the
body from which the executive is drawn, and as long as members of the executive
are also Members of Parliament, there will be imperfect separation between the
terms, members of the ministerial team (including the prime minister) - the
core of the executive - are appointed either from MPs in the House of Commons,
from the Lords, or - not uncommonly - are appointed to the Lords for the purpose
of making them ministers.
The use of the
Commons as the recruitment pool for most of the ministers (and the prime
minister) has a highly corrosive effect on the institution. Although the main
functions of parliament should be scrutiny of the executive, and as a check on
its power, all MPs who have ministerial or secretarial positions hold dual
roles as members of the executive and the legislature. Inevitably, there is a conflict of interest.
are around 140 ministers, whips and other office-holders in the Commons.
Collectively, they are known as the “payroll vote”, people who may be assumed
to vote with the government, and to defend it policies and actions.
But the problem is far worse than this basic arithmetic would suggest. Add the
Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS) and the “greasy pole climbers” who have
hopes of preferment but have not yet been promoted, and the number climbs to
200 or so on the government benches. When it comes to holding the government to
account, all these people are compromised.
Even then, this is
by no means the full extent of the distortion. The fact that the Commons is the
main pool for recruiting ministers - and the only prime ministerial pool – also
changes the dynamics of the institution. A goodly number of people who enter
parliament have no intention of remaining MPs for their entire careers. They
want to join the government. For them, parliament is not an end in itself, but
a means to a different end, the first step on a career path which ends up in
ministerial office. This should not be the case.
We thus concede the obvious: ministers and other office
holders cannot be members of parliament. If members become ministers, they must
resign as MPs. As a consequence, prime ministers must appoint their own
ministers – from whatever source they choose – subject to parliamentary
confirmation and dismissal. This has the added advantage of widening the
Mention here must
be made of the Monarch, who remains head of state, with roles and duties
unchanged. Furthermore, the office of prime minister keeps the title. The fact
that a prime minister is elected does not, per
se, turn the office into a presidential post.
There are then
other details we need to establish. One is the period of office and the number
of times an individual can stand. Arguably, the US system of four years per
term and a maximum of two terms is a good model. But the detail is not
important at this stage, even if it could become so later. Sufficient at the moment is the principle –
that we should have elected prime ministers. They and their ministers must be
separate from Parliament and held to account by it.