The phrase ‘I am a critical friend of the government/the Mayor/the council/etc’ must be one of the most overused in modern politics. It is rarely more than 50% accurate: those who use this descriptor of themselves are usually either a) not in the slightest bit critical, but trying to convince themselves that they are; or b) not in the slightest bit friendly, but trying to convince the government/Mayor/council/etc that they are.
I think that it is safe to say that the Conservative group on the London Assembly falls clearly into the former category. This is despite the protestations made to the contrary by Havering & Redbridge AM Roger Evans in this article which he wrote for ConservativeHome yesterday, discussing the group’s role under the Boris Johnson mayoralty. In fact, the article’s title, ‘Opposing the Opposition’ gives a better insight into the mindset of the Assembly Tories than the assertion that
The key themes [for the group] are support without becoming enslaved to the executive, friendly criticism without being destructive.
It is worth picking apart a few strands of the article, as it gives some insight into how many back-bench members of governing parties (and, to be fair, not just Conservatives) quickly begin to deceive themselves about how great a job of holding their own executive to account they are doing and, more importantly, how better at it they are than the last lot.
We can safely skip the premature guff about a ‘more collegiate’ style of governance from Boris (does collegiate include denying the second largest party on the Assembly any representation on the LDA board?). Evans explains some of the key roles of the Assembly:
The most visible element of our role is the monthly Mayor’s Question Time [MQT]. For two hours the 25 Assembly Members get to pose questions and follow up with carefully planned supplementaries. The opportunity for detailed discussion is much greater than is afforded by PMQs[.]
Indeed, I can’t demur from that. Although I seem to remember plenty of Tory grumbles in the past about the Assembly being toothless. As Evans says, MQT is probably the most important bit of Assembly business: what a shame the Tory group doesn’t seem all that interested in it. The table below totals up the questions by party group for the most recent MQT on 10th September (useful write-ups of the key responses from that session here and here, with video available here).
|Party Group||No of AMs||Questions tabled||Questions per AM|
Now, I’ve never been a great advocate of quantity over quality, but the figure for questions per AM in the Tory group is disastrously low, particularly as although MQTs are normally monthly, the September session follows a two-month summer recess hiatus. In that time, could Tory AMs really think of less than 5 things each that they would like to ask the Mayor? And I’m not sure the quality argument holds given that one of the questions was about Segway licensing (Question #1828 in this document – take a bow, Andrew Boff) and another is demanding that London Olympic medals be manufactured in the UK (Question #1837 – but why does Brian Coleman care what hangs around the necks of ‘highly paid athletes who leave their consciences at passport control’?). Mr Evans, when your group asks proportionally less questions than banana-munching fascist Richard Barnbrook, you need to start thinking hard about whether it is using this GLA Act-given opportunity for in-depth questioning well enough.
Let’s plough on:
[T]he obvious danger for the administration is that they slip into the sort of sycophantic questioning…
Hang on a moment – is the use of the word ‘administration’ a Freudian slip? Just because the Mayor is a Tory, doesn’t make the Tory Assembly group into ‘the administration’ – although I accept that a worrying (from a separation of powers point of view) number of Conservative AMs do have jobs in Johnson’s executive. Sorry, Mr Evans, you were saying:
[T]he obvious danger for the administration is that they slip into the sort of sycophantic questioning that Labour MPs indulge in every week. ‘Can I congratulate the Mayor on (insert latest statistics)?’ is not going to win us any friends or cast the authority in a good light.
Ah yes, that old chestnut. The other lot are so much worse than us. Sycophantic questioning of ministers, as is well known, was invented on the 1st May 1997. Better not take a look at the last Prime Ministers Questions taken by well-known Labour Prime Minister John Major, had we?
[Col 1069] Sir Jim Spicer (Con, Dorset West): During the campaign, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be coming to the south of England and, we all hope, to Dorset. When he comes to Dorset, will he pass on to the people there and all those in the area served by Southern Electricity the good news that, as from Tuesday, they will have had an 11 per cent cut in their electricity bills during the past nine months, which amounts to £40 to £50 off their bills? Is not that proof that privatisation works, and would it have happened if we had had a windfall tax? *
or how about
[Col 1072] Winston Churchill (Con, Davyhulme) [M]ay I, on behalf of my Manchester constituents, thank my right hon. Friend andthe Government for making the United Kingdom the best functioning economy in all of Europe, with half the levels of unemployment of France or Germany? Is it not precisely because those two countries have not had the benefit of a Thatcher-Major revolution that they are suffering from what, in Labour days, used to be known as the British disease?
No sycophancy there whatsoever. Now, to be fair to the Tory AMs, their sycophancy towards Boris hasn’t reached those heights yet, mainly no doubt because he has done precious little to earn it. Instead, Conservative AMs are using their questioning time to re-fight the last election by openly inviting Johnson to get in a bit of Ken-bashing. Take these two questions from Mr Evans himself (Questions 1843 and 1844):
Of the savings made, how much and how many were down to common sense saving or avoidance of duplication that the previous administration failed to utilise?
Are you able to demonstrate that, in essence, by careful planning, the GLA can do more for less through prudent and sensible financial planning?
Roger Evans continues:
Instead, we should use the opportunity to focus on constituency matters.
A cycnic would suggest that this might be because such issues can be easily passed off by the Mayor with an answer to the effect that he has asked TfL or the LDA to look into the matter or that he deplores the action of a Labour or Lib Dem run council, whereas bigger issues might actually require a tricky substantive answer. This could, horror or horrors, actually force a positive light on the actions of the previous administration. If MQT is to be all about constituency matters, then what role does Mr Evans see for the three London-wide Conservative members?
Much of the rest of our time is taken up with scrutiny work. After the election the other parties ganged up to deprive us of influential committee chairs and since then they have used their positions to maintain a barrage of criticism, sometimes deserved but mostly politically motivated.
Hmm…sounds remarkably similar to the non-Labour (or to be fair, non-Labour, non-Green, non-UKIP) parties ‘ganging up’ to deprive Labour of committee chairs and the chair of the Assembly in 2000 and 2004. Although no doubt in Mr Evans’ book that was democracy in action, rather than ganging up. And what’s this I hear? Politicians from non-Conservative parties are criticising a Conservative Mayor? Whatever next?
Conservative AMs have a key role as critical friends to the Mayor, highlighting valid concerns and rebutting Labour’s carping which has continued since May 2nd.
Whilst not stated explicitly, Mr Evans is reducing himself to bringing up what is currently the right’s favourite response to any criticism of Boris: ‘You lost, we won, we can do what we like, stop complaining’. This, of course, from people who never once complained about Ken Livingstone when he was the democratically elected Mayor of London or, indeed, who never ‘carp’ about Gordon Brown, the democratically legitimate Prime Minister.
And then, the piece de resistance:
When Labour demand that the Cross River Tram be built (for example), we should be asking them where they will find the money, for such schemes need financial support from their own government.
Ah yes, the tram. I somehow don’t think Evans quite gets where the ‘opposition’ parties are coming from on this. No-one denies that money would have to be found from the Treasury to pay for the tram: no-one pretends that the Treasury is overflowing with cash right now. What they do object to is that if Boris takes his foot off the accelerator on this, proclaims the project officially in limbo and ceases pressuring Alistair Darling, then the chances of funding at any time in the next decade or two shrink to zero.
To general surprise, after MQT last week, the entire Conservative group voted against a motion moved by Labour AM Val Shawcross on the Cross River Tram (full story in the Southwark News today, but not yet on line). As the Tories decided to side with the BNP on this issue, the motion was only carried by the Chair’s casting vote (bet the Lib Dems are glad they’re not voting Brian Coleman into the chair any more). Was this motion calling for Boris to build the tram straight away, or find the money exclusively from the TfL budget? No. Rather the substantive of the motion, after offering general support for the scheme, called for
the Mayor as Chair of TfL to ensure that all possible options for the funding of these schemes are fully explored.
Which I had sort of thought was Boris’ position. After all, in a response to a question from the ubiquitous Ms Shawcross in July, he said
I am aware that the scheme was generally supported by those responding to the consultation.
And it is well known that the Mayor is in favour of governance by consultation, regardless of the financial implications. But we can be sure that if the Conservative group are voting against innocuous motions like the above, then the scheme is well and truly dead.
In their actions last week we see the Conservative group’s real mission: first, do the Mayor’s dirty work for him, and second, ensure that the government gets the blame for anything that goes wrong.
Despite Mr Evans’ protestations, the Tory group have got a long way to go before they can even claim the accolade of ‘critical friends’, let alone that of a useful adjunct to the governance of London.
* To be fair, this question did lead to the following quote for posterity from Mr Major, under heckling from Dennis Skinner:
“[Mr Skinner, if he were to retire at the election] will have plenty of time to travel by train and the fares will be lower, following privatisation, than they were before.”
Update 18/09: Dave Hill seems a little more convinced by Roger Evans than I am. Apparently Mr Evans writes novels involving Greenwich, so I’m a bit more charitably inclined towards him now as well.