What price loyalty? - Article

04/03/2004

What price would you put on your principles? Perhaps you think that your principles can’t be bought, that you would always stand up for what you think is right whatever the inducements. If so, you may be surprised at what price loyalty is for sale in the House of Commons. All governments operate on a system of collective responsibility, the theory being that all members of the government, the ministers, all believe in all the policies of the government. When collective responsibility breaks down, as it did for a time under the last Conservative government, the sight is unedifying and the political consequences devastating. Now, obviously it is impossible for all 80 government ministers in the Commons to all believe all the same things at the same time, and life in the government is a series of compromises. If the compromises get too much there is only one honourable thing to do: resign. Robin Cook resigned over the war with Iraq and enhanced his reputation with all sides of the Commons. His resignation speech was an important Parliamentary occasion: it was dignified, serious but with flashes of humour and, above all, honourable. Similarly, a more junior minister, John Denham resigned on the same day and for the same reason and is widely respected for his courage in doing so. I disagreed with him but greatly respect him. Others who have left the government have behaved less honourably. One person who served in the Whips’ Office wasted little opportunity in voting against the government as soon as he had left it. It would appear that for some the Whips’ salary and use of a government car were inducement enough to vote the right way. At least we know what price his principles are.

Which brings us to Clare Short. Most members of the Labour Party would think it was like winning the lottery to serve in the House of Commons. To serve in a Labour cabinet and to have the plum job of International Development secretary would, to most Labour supporters, be a great privilege. Given Clare’s actions since she left government she obviously wouldn’t agree with them. She voted for a war she didn’t agree with and then, when the war was over, she resigned over nothing. This was daft rather than dignified. She took an oath of loyalty when she became a Privy Councillor, one of the oldest and highest offices of state, which she now conveniently ignores. She was happy to sign the Ministerial Code of Conduct, as did I and everyone else who has served in government, but she is now happy to ignore it. She claims she has seen transcripts of Kofi Annan’s conversations and has jumped to the twin conclusions that he was a) bugged and, b) bugged by MI6. In fact the likeliest explanation is that she saw transcripts taken from the United Nations website and circulated to ministers for information. And as one person said to me, as we have one of the best security services in the world why on earth would they share sensitive information with such a liability? Quite. Her resignation speech was ill-judged and won her no friends; her personal attacks on a Prime Minister in whose cabinet she was happy to serve for so long are now a daily occurrence. The difference between a cabinet member’s salary and that of a backbench MP is £71,433. What price loyalty?