…have David Heath state it quite clearly and explicitly, on the record, in the House of Commons.
Tonight, the BBC website is displaying the headline “Clegg says dissolution plans must avoid ‘limbo‘”, bringing us the extraordinary revelation that the Beeb’s (generally very good) Laura Kuenssberg detected earlier in the afternoon, that Nick Clegg might be retreating on the 55% rule by “fudging” a time-limit clause into it to prevent a “zombie government”.
Except it’s not really news at all.
A fortnight ago, David Heath stated, quite clearly and explicitly, on the record, in the House of Commons, that:
The legislation will be framed in such a way that, if no Government are formed within a particular time, Parliament stands dissolved.
He then went on to expand on this, saying:
Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward the automatic Dissolution proposal, as a safeguard that we will make part of the legislation, if no new Prime Minister can be appointed within a certain number of days. It seems to me that that is appropriate.
I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has said that we cannot make any read-across to the Scottish legislation, but I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with him. One thing in the Scottish legislation is that although a two-thirds majority is required for an early Dissolution, there is a fall-back position, with which he will be familiar, which provides for automatic Dissolution if the First Minister resigns and the successor is not appointed within 28 days. That seems an entirely proper constitutional safeguard, and I am very happy to propose something of that kind for our legislation.
If you don’t believe me, you can see a complete video record of this, here. The latter quote can be found at timecode 1.09:20.
David Heath said these things on 25th May, the day of the Queen’s Speech, responding on behalf of the government to an adjournment debate specifically about the 55% proposal. And yet, half the media don’t seem to have noticed it. Until Nick Clegg says it at a convenient time of day, it hasn’t happened, as far as the media are concerned. And, it would seem, many in the Labour parliamentary party, who continued to pretend not to understand the proposal properly today in their interventions on Clegg’s speech. Quite rightly, Clegg called them out on grasping for “synthetic” reasons to disagree with fixed term parliaments. It is only when you pay attention to the ongoing debates on this topic, and see Labour MPs and others making the same crappy debating points again and again without ever seeming to listen to the answers, that it becomes obvious this is what they are doing.
Jenni Russell argued recently in a piece packed full of win, that:
This public and media culture isn’t inevitable. It’s just the one that we have developed, where raucous, capricious news machines justify any coverage, no matter how skewed, by pretending that it can all be defined as scrutiny. Too often … denunciation is preferred to understanding.
Sadly, this is the modus operandi of all coverage of political debate these days. “Scrutiny” seems to amount to the general principle that parties should be subjected to a general sort of “stress test” of having a set of stock criticisms flung at them. If they come out the other side still standing, they have been successfully “scrutinised”. If not, they have been found wanting. Nowhere in this process does any concept of objective truth seem to exist; the media long since gave up trying to find such a thing, in favour of maintaining a strict “balance” between government and opposition. The opposition could argue that black is white, and the media would still faithfully put this point to the government, five times a day on radio, TV and in print. They take their cue from MPs, so, even when Labour are being transparently opportunist and partisan, this will be the line of questioning which government ministers face.
Ultimately, we end up with an impoverished national conversation, because the media no longer bother to actually pay attention to what is going on and ask questions of their own. They are so used to being spoon-fed it all by the media operatives of the political parties or by leaks from MPs manoeuvring within their parties, it seems to completely pass them by when something is just said, openly, on the floor of the house. We in the Lib Dems have seen this before, incidentally, in coverage of party conference which seems to owe more to the briefings being given to journalists than to actual reporting of the proceedings of the conference.
I am increasingly struggling to shake off the sense that something has gone seriously wrong with coverage of politics in the UK.