Tom Richmond: The weakest political leadership in living memory?

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I’m not alone in bemoaning the quality of political leadership and debates in this country – a peer recently remarked to me that this is the weakest government, and weakest opposition, in living memory. I couldn’t disagree.

I refer, by way of example, to the two-day debate on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill – the means by which European legislation will be incorporated into British law on the day that Brexit is implemented.

Totally fundamental to the future of this country, Speaker John Bercow’s time restraints soon limited the contributions of backbenchers from six minutes to five to four to three – barely long enough for an orator like Winston Churchill to make his opening remarks.

And, because of this, the quality of debate diminished because those concerned were not only reading from their scripts, but there was little or no eye contact with others and a huge reluctance to accept interventions as they didn’t want to lose valuable speaking time. Head down, they carried on in their own little worlds.

If they had engaged with others, not only would it have enhanced their debating skills but also their future credentials as politicians of renown because an intervention might, in fact, reveal a nugget that has the potential to change policy for the better – it’s what happened in the 1970s and 80s before partisanship really took over.

That’s why it’s important to commend two interventions. The first was by the Remain supporting former Labour minister Caroline Flint who appealed for “honest endeavour and compromise on all sides” to make the most of the hand dealt by the electorate. At last.

The second was by newly-elected Tory MP Alex Burghart who said Parliament’s duty was to get Brexit right. “We should carry on sitting until our work is done; if we have to sit late, if we have to sit some Fridays, if we have to think about the length of recess, we must. The importance of getting the Bill right goes beyond those concerns. This is a job that requires sacrifice,” he said.

Given Brexit was supposedly about ‘taking back control’, it should mean empowering – and re-invigorating – Parliamentary debate and sovereignty (something David Davis championed before becoming Brexit Secretary). It will not happen, however, if debate and scrutiny is stifled like this so Ministers cannot be held to account. The consequence will be even more politicians from the scripted soundbite generation ignoring pertinent questions because they don’t know any better.

THE importance of debating skills was highlighted by the truly woeful interview that Digital Minister Matt Hancock gave to the BBC’s Today programme about broadband coverage.

Because his inquisitor quite rightly highlighted those areas of the country where the most basic broadband is still a distant dream, this apology of a minister was forced to deviate from his pre-prepared script and was left fumbling.

This should be one of the most important jobs in government. However his complacent disregard of all those homes and businesses stuck in a cyber-space ‘black hole’ rendered this economist unfit to hold this post any longer.

Despite Ministers claiming there is insufficient time to debate Brexit’s every twist and turn, Parliament is now adjourned until October 9 to make way for the Lib Dem, Labour and Tory party conferences.

Given it’s less than a fortnight since the Commons reconvened after the six week summer recess, it’s an insult to voters – the Lib Dems, who have just 12 MPs, are due to end their conference on Tuesday.

Surely the time has come for such gatherings to take place at weekends?

It is reported that the £1bn ‘cash for votes’ deal between the Tories and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party will, according to the Treasury’s solicitor Jonathan Jones, require Parliamentary approval.

Yet, while the Government will be hopeful of winning a vote, Theresa May would be denied a majority if Yorkshire’s Tory MPs protested over transport funding. Are they prepared to exert such influence so this region gets the world-class railway that it deserves? They may not get a better opportunity to do so.

Having read the draft report into the Leeds trolleybus fiasco, I have no confidence that lessons will be learned by the city council. Instead it attempts to blame the sorry saga on the fact there were eight Transport Secretaries during the relevant period.

Yes, the churn of Cabinet ministers does not help long-term decision-making, but this whitewash appears to gloss over the lack of expertise at Leeds Council that were highlighted by the Government inspector who presided over the public inquiry.

Given the time and money that has been wasted, with Leeds still the largest city without some sort of light rail system, taxpayers have every right to ask how chief executive Tom Riordan and his team will monitor and oversee such projects from the outset in future. Local taxpayers – like myself – have a right to know.

I must be losing my touch. I was due, on my day off, to meet Wakefield Council leader Peter Box to discuss devolution until his secretary cancelled at the last minute so he could attend a pottery class.

I hope this isn’t the reason why Wakefield is the only authority in West, North and East Riding not committed to the One Yorkshire devolution deal that has the potential to transform this region for the better.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk