Monday, December 08, 2008

Whose Parliament Is It Anyway?

MPs right to launch an immediate cross-party inquiry into the Greengate scandal is being stifled by a government trying every trick in the book to put a lid on the whole affair.

As MPs meet for the first time to fully discuss the outrage, the future of parliament is at stake. MPs should tell government ministers and their political police poodles to stuff it.

The heavy-handed anti-terrorist police raid on senior opposition spokesman, Damian Green's private commons office has made a mockery of the elected House, left democracy in tatters and the country appalled and afraid we are slipping further into a police state. The Greengage scandal exposes a government which preaches tolerance at the expense of justice, truth and freedom.

But this is showing all the signs of descending into a squalid party political squabble over the future of the speaker and the right of parliament to investigate the twist and turns of this monumental blunder and affront to civil liberties.

MPs do not hold a divine right to rule, they are elected. Their overriding job is to uphold the rights of parliament, not their Party, not the speaker, certainly not the police and not the government of the day. And that truism holds just as much for the prime minister and his home secretary as it does for a humble backbencher.

At the centre is the role of the police, the government, the commons ringmaster, Michael Martin and the right of MPs to mount an immediate cross-party inquiry.

The motion to hold back on an inquiry until the police investigation is over, tabled by leader of the House, Harriet Harman, has its own delicious irony. As a civil liberties lawyer in the 1980s, Harman herself was found in contempt of court in a landmark battle with the home office, the outcome of which is used as a legal precedent to this day (harman v home office [1983]).

Some of the government's own backbenchers are accusing ministers of trying to kick the row into touch, well aware that a police investigation could take months to complete, bringing the MP's inquiry hard up against a general election.

There are enough top legal minds at Westminster to form a committee, round up the usual suspects, subject them to forensic questioning and bring this matter to a swift conclusion. With full parliamentary privilege and no issues of national security here, that should be held in public.

But asking the key players what they knew and when they knew it, is just what the government does not want to happen. Already a likely committee of seven, stuffed with government supporters, has led the LibDems to threaten a boycott, joined this afternoon by the Tories.

The discredited speaker is toast, despite last-ditch government smokescreens. A letter from Met commissioner Bob Quick, to the home secretary Jacqui Smith, posted here, flatly contradicts the speaker's version of events. Someone is clearly telling porkies. Now the only question left to resolve is does he jump or will he be pushed into cosy retirement in the Lords.

With the top job at the Met up for grabs, the issue has become more political than ever. The convenient ongoing police inquiry, as feared by the Orange Party earlier, as this debacle unfolded, is a neat move to allow the government to hide behind that inquiry with little comment.

The opposition, with LibDem support, has been joined by outspoken voices from the Labour backbenches. But government ministers, backed by the powerful whips, hope they can rely on the huge gang of payroll MPs to steamroll through their wishes.

The New Year bring a whole different ball game, as Brown sets off on his 'meet the people' tour of the country as part of his election campaign. By then Greengate will take a back seat, as party politics and electioneering move into top gear.

Parliament reflects the will of the people through its elected members. It is for parliament to decide when and how to hold an inquiry, what to do about their discredited speaker and how to stop the police from descending further into a mere political tool of government.

That is not something to be decided and engineered for political advantage on the whim of a government of the day nor by party political bickering or misplaced tribal loyalties.

Private Eye editor, Ian Hislop, jokingly described the Greengate scandal as the most important challenge facing parliament since - Magna Carta. Only Hislop probably wasn't joking.

5pm UPDATE: Blair's former home secretary, Charles Clarke, intends to vote against the government over the outrageous plan to put off the commons inquiry. Clarke has told whips the vote is a "House of Commons matter" - commons code for voting against the government, according to the Westminster Mole. With a packed House, a full Tory and Lib Dem turnout and a good number of angry backbench Labour MPs, it is set to be a knife-edge vote this evening.

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