WESTMINSTER loves the language of gore. People talk of “back-stabbings” and “assassins”; of electoral “massacres”; of paths to power “littered with corpses” and of “bloodbaths” if the powerful are crossed. In this sanguinary lexicon MPs are accounted “brave” and “heroic” for drafting a motion that calls for a parliamentary official to resign, or for writing newspaper articles that are codedly critical of their leaders.
They aren’t. It is brave to attend a protest rally in Burma. It is brave to be an independent journalist in Russia. It is brave to be a human-rights monitor in Syria. In Britain heads roll or are impaled on spikes only metaphorically. Only ink actually gets spilt: there will not be blood. The costs of sticking out a neck are pifflingly low. Ordinary Britons might well wonder why in these febrile times so few politicians, whether commanders or foot soldiers, are willing to make a stand.
Consider the three imbroglios that have paralysed politics. First, the fate of the soon to be ex-speaker, Michael Martin. On May 11th he rebuked two MPs who said things he didn’t like; attempting, on May 18th, to cling to his canopied chair, he seemed mumblingly ignorant of the procedures he is supposed to oversee. After his failings on MPs’ expenses (see article), it was painfully clear that he had to go. And on May 19th Mr Martin announced that he would. Yet only 23 MPs were “brave” enough to sign the “no confidence” motion that exhorted him to.
In fact, some of the reasons offered by those who backed the speaker had merit. Mr Martin did not force those implicated in the expenses debacle to submit dodgy claims. Why should he be sacrificed to camouflage the guilt of others?
Quite so: others should plainly go too. Some MPs worked the expenses system too disreputably to keep their seats or, in some cases, their ministerial jobs or places on the Conservative front bench. Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, who wrote a belated cheque for the amount of capital-gains tax she didn’t pay when selling what was once, for expenses purposes, her “second home”, is not the only cabinet member in this category. Those top Tories who made lucrative second-home claims on properties in spitting distance of their first homes are similarly bespattered.
Yet, so far, a pair of the most disgraced Labour MPs have been suspended by their parliamentary party and one disposable junior minister has stepped down; on the Tory side, David Cameron jettisoned an aide, and a few backbenchers who made baronial expenses claims have said they will not stand again. Some have apologised and, like Ms Blears, brandished penitential cheques. But otherwise Gordon Brown and Mr Cameron have hidden behind scrutiny panels and regulatory reforms—classic bureaucratic responses to an essentially moral problem. Mr Brown vowed to prevent anyone who had “defied the rules” from seeking re-election, and called the antics of Ms Blears and others “unacceptable”. But neither he nor Mr Cameron has employed the obvious remedy: to sack the egregious offenders and urge specific deselections, or impose them on reluctant constituencies if necessary. And although some activists are calling for a cull, few MPs, even among the clean ones, have joined them.
So to the final intrigue—the revived murmurs among Labour MPs about ditching Mr Brown himself. Before he became prime minister in 2007, few raised a squeal of protest; since then, some have been grumbling almost constantly. The arguments for and against installing another leader voiced during last summer’s aborted mutiny are again doing the rounds. Again MPs lament Mr Brown’s charmlessness and Labour’s likely electoral rout. Again they meekly look to the cabinet to lead a coup.
A time to cull
These different instances of collective timidity have some common explanations. In each case “boldness” has been inhibited by loyalty to friends, qualms about ruining careers and concern about constitutional niceties (it has been one of those weeks when commentators sagely bandy about medieval dates and precedents hastily garnered from Wikipedia).
The main explanation, however, is politicians’ self-interest. Backbenchers fear the ghoulish tortures of whips and the lost chance of preferment that rudeness about the prime minister might incur. Some fear that speaking out about the need for expenses-related sackings could set off a wave of retribution that could eventually engulf them too. The party leaders are stalling, reluctant to wield their metaphorical axes until they are sure where the chopping would end. Mr Brown may worry that punishing some MPs will make him still less loved among the rest.
Unfortunately, the politicians’ self-interest is unenlightened and myopic. With so little life left in the government, the cost to the careers of Labour mutineers would be nugatory; indeed, their stature might be enhanced if the plot came off. The confrontation between Mr Brown and the malcontents is less like a gunslingers’ deadly stand-off than the Monty Python sketch in which two men slap each other with fish. Meanwhile, implementing or supporting tough discipline for the most extravagant expenses artists might indeed lead to awkwardness and perhaps the odd by-election. But through their hesitancy the big parties have been tainted more than they need have been by the chancers they harbour. And they have left a space that insurgent parties and anti-sleaze independents are moving into.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that too many politicians are immobilised by a mix of inertia and spinelessness. Obstacles that are actually puny to them look Himalayan. To be snubbed in a parliamentary canteen seems as daunting as being put against a bullet-dented wall. Like many cowards, alas, they risk bringing on the fate they most fear.