Tom Richmond: Politicians must end the insults and start speaking to the nation

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DOUGLAS Hurd, a former foreign secretary and a statesman still steeped in the best traditions of Parliament, is the latest to express dismay at how “the platitudinous exchange of abuse” – as evidenced by Prime Minister’s Questions when David Cameron deigns to turn up – is now “the essence of politics”.

“People have lost confidence in politicians because politicians have lost confidence in themselves,” says Hurd, who has teamed up with York scholar Edward Young to produce a compelling, engaging and thought-provoking biography of Benjamin Disraeli.

“They bustle about, renouncing power at every opportunity, eagerly shifting decision-making down to expert bodies or local governments. All this may be virtuous but it ducks the main difficulty – that politicians are too timid to say interesting things.”

Today’s Parliament is very different to the second half of the 1800s when Hurd’s hero Disraeli ruled as a one nation leader. Then, many MPs never spoke – the prestige of being a backbencher was sufficient to satisfy their ambitions. Today political websites monitor the quantity of contributions made by MPs and the number of times that they walk through the voting lobbies. There is nothing to measure the quality of these interventions.

Yet, while Lord Hurd – who represented Witney, the seat currently held by Cameron – is right to lament the Punch and Judy politics played out by the respective front benches, it would be wrong not to overlook the quality of many of the backbench-initiated debates that now occur, including those in Westminster Hall.

While there will always be an element of political partisanship, they tend to be non-confrontational – whether it be this month’s debate on the East Coast main line’s future or diplomat Rory Stewart’s compelling intervention on Westminster’s failings before, during and after the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. They are ignored, however, because the national media’s interest in politics invariably begins and ends with the name-calling that is so despised by Hurd – and because the party whips are still reluctant to put these debates at the centre of the Parliamentary day. They are deliberately timed for the end of the day when attendance, from both MPs and political observers, is sparse.

And then there is the issue of time – the Speaker invariably puts a five-minute limit on backbench contributions, denying MPs the chance to explore policies. Contrast this with Disraeli’s time – it would have taken this long to begin his opening remarks.

But, as Hurd says, the best Parliamentary speakers are those that engage the public. It is why Margaret Thatcher excelled. It explains Tony Blair’s early popularity before Iraq. And it illustrates the country’s affinity with Mayor of London Boris Johnson. According to Lord Hurd, he “should have been ruined years ago” because of all kinds of “conventional wickedness”, but Johnson prevails because he understands the ordinary person on the street.

It is a lesson today’s MPs must learn – stop the name-calling and start speaking to the country. If they do, they may – just – halt the public’s mistrust of politicians.

• MY latest experience of the NHS explains many of its current difficulties. I phoned my GP surgery on Friday last week to make an appointment – not life threatening I hasten to add – for two recurring complaints.

Having said they were non-urgent, imagine my surprise when I was told the first available slot was 19 days later on July 9.

When I suggested to the receptionist that the surgery hoped patients would go elsewhere in the interim, she did not deny this.

To cut a long story short, the practice manager agreed this was “unacceptable” and found a slot on Monday night. She did, however, point out that GPs only have an obligation to provide an appointment within 48 hours – the length of wait is immaterial.

You will not to be surprised to learn that the surgery in question, the size of a mini hospital, was hailed as one of the best in Britain and a model of best practice when visited by Gordon Brown during the last election.

Enough said, but is it any wonder that hospitals’ A&E units are under such strain – and that the new 111 non-emergency helpline is buckling under its workloads? And how can we command confidence in the Health Service’s political leaders when Parliament, an underworked institution at the best of times, has still not found time for a day-long debate into the findings of the Francis report into the Mid Staffordshire hospital deaths?

This is before I even get onto the shortcomings of the Care Quality Commission...

• THE Department of Health has spent £119,808 on refreshments since January. Some free advice to officials – join the real world and buy your own tea and biscuits.

The private sector does.

• THE undeserved gongs handed out to underwhelming celebrities and TV personalities in the Queen’s Birthday Honours – as opposed to the meritorious awards given to community stalwarts – once again enabled some politicians to slip under the radar.

Despite the Lib Dems supposedly being a party of equality and constitutional change, there was a knighthood for Andrew Stunell, one of the party stalwarts who negotiated the Coalition Agreement.

There was an even greater prize for Nick Clegg’s predecessor Sir Menzies Campbell – he has joined the Order of the Companions of Honour.

The consequence is that 14 per cent of Liberal Democrat MPs have now been knighted – and that its benches contain more “Sirs” than women.

• FINALLY, national celebrations will take place today as part of Armed Forces Day. Even though this annual event was introduced by the last Labour government to enable the public to show their respect for the country’s soldiers, sailors and pilots, it is being shunned by Labour-controlled Leeds Council.

That said, why do we need an Armed Forces Day? Shouldn’t we, as a country, be showing our respect – and gratitude – towards the military throughout the year, culminating with the annual services of remembrance every Sunday?

I fear today’s events – however worthy – are just another token gesture to ease the consciences of those politicians who betrayed the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk