'Unless Ministers are made to answer for their actions, the electorate’s verdict will be a damning one'

Theresa May, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel.
Theresa May, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel.
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First, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, refused to attend the House of Commons to answer urgent questions about tax avoidance in the wake of revelations in the Paradise papers.

Priti Patel ordered back to UK after more Israel meetings revealed
Next Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, did not even have the courtesy – or courage – to turn up for a pre-planned backbench debate, called by Hull MP Diana Johnson, to scrutinise his broken promises here. He’s clearly happy for the North to be cut adrift.

And then Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, was not present to explain why she strayed beyond her brief and held secret meetings with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and others, while on holiday, a flagrant breach of discipline that is symptomatic of a Government now out of control. She presumably thought she was unaccountable to anyone.

Though the latter had already scarpered on a pre-arranged visit to Africa when her deputy, Alistair Burt, faced the full wrath of Opposition MPs demanding “Where is she?”, Ms Patel had already been rebuked by Theresa May and should have expected a summons to the Commons and planned accordingly. After it then emerged yesterday that she had had two further unauthorised meetings that she did not disclose to the PM, her position became untenable as she was ordered back from Uganda.

Yet the fact that three Cabinet ministers felt empowered to ignore their Parliamentary obligations this week, and the Government thought it was acceptable to deploy junior underlings in their place, points to a wider malaise; namely the reluctance politicians of supposed stature to be answerable for their actions.

Gordon Brown began this regrettable downwards trend when he, as Chancellor, made himself unavailable if there was an urgent Treasury question to answer. George Osborne continued it by sending his underling David Gauke in his place and now Mr Gauke, the current Work and Pensions Secretary, did not even turn up for last month’s emergency debate on Universal Credit.

I don’t know what is more insulting – the Government choosing not to take Parliamentary votes seriously when it loses backbench debates on issues like welfare reform, another growing tendency that smacks of either arrogance on its part or a desperation to survive, or the behaviour of this week’s terrible triumvirate. At least Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson did attend his inquisition in person, though it was hardly a triumph for diplomacy.

Of course, it should be noted that John Bercow, the current Speaker, is far more willing to grant urgent questions on matters of topicality and importance than his predecessor Michael Martin who required great persuasion to do so.

Yet, given there are limited opportunities to hold Ministers to account due to the House of Commons becoming a part-time chamber because of the extent to which the Government can curtail debate and scrutiny on the days that MPs do meet, such inquisitions are all the more important at a time when many of the miscreant ministers currently in the spotlight for a variety of personal and policy sins would – in any previous era – already have resigned long ago or been sacked.

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Take this week. Though the Commons sat on Monday and Tuesday as previously mentioned, it is now in the middle of a three-day recess, hence why Mrs May was spared the ordeal of Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday when she would have had to defend her missing Ministers.

Why? Parliament always used to shut in November so the cleaners could spruce up Westminster prior to the Queen’s Speech which was, traditionally, held at this time of year. Yet, even though the Government’s legislative programme has been revealed in the late Spring since 2010 onwards, the hiatus in the calendar remains.

Just think what could have been discussed in full – Parliament’s report to the sexual harassment and sleaze scandal that becomes more unedifying by the day; secret papers on the Government’s Brexit preparations that MPs voted to release last week and day-to-day issues like the NHS’s readiness for winter.

And while Mr Bercow does make senior politicians like the Prime Minister and Chancellor answer scores of questions after setpiece statements, often detaining them for in excess of two hours, the Government’s tactics now leave much to be desired.

After being appointed chief whip a week ago in the reshuffle prompted by Sir Michael Fallon’s deeply inappropriate behaviour and resignation as Defence Secretary, Skipton & Ripon MP Julian Smith should have foreseen the the political firestorm when Chris Grayling, his Cabinet colleague, chose to stick two fingers up at Yorkshire commuters by sending local transport minister Jesse Norman in his place.

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Three points. First, Mr Smith is among those to have pressed for trans-Pennine rail improvements – his website says so. Second, when did the Northern Powerhouse become ‘local’? Third, greater accountability should equate to better decision-making – Mr Grayling’s problems began when he sneaked out a written statement in July about the dowengrading of rail electrification plans in the hope of avoiding serious scrutiny.

Yet, by allowing Ministers to be so contemptuous and mislead the public with such frequency, it suggests that they do, in fact, have something to hide. And unless errant Ministers are made by Theresa May to answer for their actions in person, the electorate’s verdict is likely to be a damning one as the Cabinet disintegrates because of the arrogance of supposed political statesmen and women.

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