Last week we had the latest revelations from Parliament. The details might be new but the feelings they provoke are all too familiar. Disappointment. Despair. Even disgust. But as I argued in my speech at the Open University in May last year, anger at the expenses scandal is just the most forceful expression of a deep frustration people feel with our whole political system.
It’s a system in which too much power is concentrated in the hands of the elite and denied to the man and woman on the street. We’ve been seeing the symptoms of that for years. Decisions made behind closed doors. The Houses of Parliament bypassed and undermined.
Money buying influence. Too often just an elite few choosing the people who become MPs for many years. We can’t go on like this.
We’re just weeks away from an election. This should be the highest point in our democratic life – but never has the reputation of politics sunk so low. We’ve got to fix our broken politics and we’ve got to start fixing it now. The question is: who’s going to do it, and how are they going to do it?
I’m grateful to Sir Christopher Kelly, Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Paul Kennedy for the work they have done on expenses over the past few weeks. It was right that the investigation and initial recommendations should be undertaken with complete independence.
And I also want to thank Tony Wright for his cross-party review into how we can make the House of Commons stronger and make our government more accountable.
But just because we have trusted others with the work of reform until this point, it does not mean we should relinquish political leadership on this issue in the future. People are fed up with politicians hiding behind the cloak of independent inquiries and endless reviews.
They want us to stand up, grasp this issue by the scruff of the neck and start dealing with it. And I want to make something very clear: I believe Gordon Brown has proved he is just not capable of doing that.
Look how he tried to block the publication of expenses. Look at his disastrous interventions - from the YouTube fiasco when he proposed paying MPs just to turn up - to his own failure to turn up and vote to ban the John Lewis list. Look at what his idea of reform is – trying to fiddle the electoral system and introduce the Alternative Vote in a cynical attempt to save his own skin. Look how he's dithering over good reforms put forward by his own MP, Tony Wright.
For the last two days we have been saying: it is wrong for Labour MPs trying to use Parliamentary privilege to avoid prosecution to keep the Labour whip; it is wrong for them to use Labour lawyers; it is wrong for Labour and Gordon Brown not to act. Labour started by saying it was quite wrong for us to attack them in this way but now in a humiliating change they have withdrawn the whip from all three MPs. They’re now in a headlong retreat.
The last 24 hours show how the instincts of the Conservative party are in tune with the public opinion and are in the right place, and Labour’s are wrong.
I can further announce today that I have asked George Young to prepare a new Parliamentary Privilege Act. This was recommended by Lord Nicholls in 1999, that we would introduce as soon as possible, to clarify the rules of parliamentary privilege to make sure that they cannot be used by MPs to evade justice.
We should also be looking at whether the House of Commons should not be considering waiving any privilege over expenses claims, if indeed any such privilege exists.
How Gordon Brown can claim to be a reformer with a straight face, I just don’t know. He can’t reform the institution because he is the institution. The character of his Government – secretive, power-hoarding, controlling – is his character. Just as he’s the roadblock to public service reform, he’s the roadblock to political reform. We cannot have five more years of his old politics. For the health of our democracy it is now essential that this shameless defender of the old elite goes as soon as possible.
If he goes, and if we get a new Conservative government, we can make the changes we need. But why should people believe we will fix our broken politics any more than Gordon Brown?
First, because as this scandal has unfolded we are the ones who have shown leadership at every stage. We led on transparency over expenses - and on getting MPS to payback the money. We voted for reform on a three line whip on an opposition motion - something that had not been done before on a House of Commons matter. And we put forward serious plans for reform - from Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force in the first half of this parliament, to our plan for fixing broken politics in the second.
But more than our record as reformers, the reason people should believe that we are the ones to sort out the mess of our broken politics is because of who we are and what we believe.
We are a new generation, come of age in the modern world of openness and accountability. And when we say we will take power from the political elite and give it to the man and woman in the street - it's not just because we believe it will help fix broken politics. It's what we believe, full stop.
We don't believe that an arrogant, all-controlling government sitting in London passing endless laws and regulations actually makes things better. In fact, on many occasions it makes things worse.
So we'd want to give more power and control to people even without these political scandals. We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute. We'd want to take power from the centre and give it to local communities even if we didn't have MPs in the dock potentially accused of fiddling their expenses.
This is what we believe. It's not what Gordon Brown believes. He believes in state control; we believe in social responsibility. He represents the dying days of secrecy and suspicion; we are a new generation at ease with openness and trust. And with a massive turnover of Conservative MPs at the next election, the voice of this new generation will be even louder and stronger.
That's why when we say that we are the reformers and Gordon Brown is the roadblock to reform, it is a claim based not just on his record of opposition to change and our consistent calls for change, not just on his weak leadership and our strong leadership, but on character, values and philosophy: the things that really matter in politics.
OUR PLAN FOR CHANGE
So today I want to set out some of the changes we plan to make: and to propose the next important area for reform, after expenses.
Tomorrow we publish our draft manifesto on fixing broken politics. It is a comprehensive plan for a radical redistribution of power. We’re going to take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman on the street. That power shift must start with an attack on the privilege, excess and exemption from normal rules that has infected Parliament.
We’ve already started that in opposition, by publishing frontbench Conservative MPs’ expenses online. In government we’d go much, much further. We’d make sure this is a requirement not only for our front bench – but also, as the Independent Regulator has suggested, for our back bench and indeed for every MP of any party.
We’d swing our weight right behind the Kelly Review’s proposals to clean up the House of Commons. We’d sweep away the subsidies and luxuries that sit so uneasily with public service – including the gold-plated pensions. We’d make it the law that anyone who wants to sit in the Parliament of the United Kingdom must be a full UK taxpayer in the United Kingdom. We’d cut the cost of politics by cutting the number of MPs by ten per cent. And we'd equalise the size of constituencies so that everyone in the country, no matter where they live, has an equal vote of equal value.
ETHICS AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN GOVERNMENT
Now we all know that expenses has dominated politics for the last year. But if anyone thinks that cleaning up politics means dealing with this alone and then forgetting about it, they are wrong. Because there is another big issue that we can no longer ignore.
It is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.
I’m talking about lobbying – and we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.
Now, I want to be clear: it’s not just big business that gets involved in lobbying. Charities and other organisations, including trade unions, do it too. What’s more, when it's open and transparent, when people know who is meeting who, for what reason and with what outcome, lobbying is perfectly reasonable.
It’s important that businesses, charities and other organisations feel they can make sure their voice is heard. And indeed, lobbying often makes for better, more workable, legislation. But I believe that it is increasingly clear that lobbying in this country is getting out of control.
Today it is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament. The Hansard Society has estimated that some MPs are approached over one hundred times a week by lobbyists. Much of the time this happens covertly.
We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence. This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests - not to mention government contracts - worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.
I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.
We can’t go on like this. I believe it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.
Politics should belong to people, not big business or big unions, and we need to sort this out. So if we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge - gained while being paid by the public to serve the public - for their own private gain.
Today, the guidelines state that former ministers shouldn't lobby government for at least twelve months after leaving office. We will start by doubling that to two years.
But there's another problem. Those guidelines are simply that: guidance issued to ex-ministers by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, explaining what kind of jobs they can take up. Today, ex-Ministers can ignore this advice without sanction.
So we will rewrite the Ministerial Code to make clear that anyone who ignores the advice of the Committee will be forced to give up some or all of their Ministerial pension. Dealing with the lobbying issue may be painful, but it needs to happen and because we are from a new generation at ease with openness and accountability, because we believe in social responsibility not state control, we will clean things up.
So that is the choice the country faces. Five more years of Gordon Brown blocking reform, whether it's money from big business or money from big unions. Or reform to clean up lobbying from a new Conservative government committed to transparency and accountability.
THE PEOPLE’S PARLIAMENT
As well as cleaning up Parliament, we’ve got to empower it. There was a time when Parliament used to stand tall, a beacon of democracy leading national debate. But people look at it now and see a place they feel little connection to, play little part in, and don’t feel proud to represent them. It all adds up to a weak Parliament – and we’ve got to get its strength back.
That must start by making people feel connected to it. They don’t right now, because they don’t feel connected to the politicians in it. To restore that link we need to restore proper accountability – we need to give people the feeling that they are the ones pulling the strings and that they hire and fire their representative in parliament.
When it comes to the hiring, we’ve been leading the way. I’m proud that our party was the first to hold open primaries so that every constituent has the chance to help choose our candidates. But we have to recognise that open primaries stop being a good thing for democracy if they are captured by narrow interest groups in the community, who use them to serve their own agenda.
All-postal primaries are an excellent way of getting more people involved and preventing that abuse. These show a good way forward, but they cost money, so that's something we need to look at.
When it comes to the firing, we’ve said we’ll introduce a power of recall to allow voters to kick out MPs mid-parliament if they have been proven guilty of serious wrongdoing. Opening up the process of choosing who is your MP; making it easier for local people to get rid of them. These are reforms that will help to connect people to Parliament.
But strengthening Parliament also means making sure people feel they can play a part in it. At the moment the conversation between Parliament and the country is more like a monologue: one talks, the country listens.
It’s absurd that a tiny percentage of the population craft legislation that will apply to one hundred per cent of the population. Instead of locking people out of this process, we need to invite them in. So we’ll create a right of initiative nationally, where any petition that collects one hundred thousand signatures will be eligible to be formally debated in the House of Commons. Any petition with a million signatures will allow members of the public to table a Bill that could end up being debated and voted on by MPs.
And we will also introduce a new Public Reading Stage for Bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on new legislation. This will mean many more expert eyes helping to scrutinise laws as they’re formed, flagging up flaws and offering suggestions for improvement.
Parliament also gets its strength from the pride people have in it. There’s not much of that around today. An institution that was once famous for its radical legislation, elevated debate and forensic scrutiny of laws has turned into a giant franking machine that stamps whatever Acts the government wants sometimes hardly even thinking about it.
And one of the biggest constitutional changes in our history - our membership of the European Union - has practically passed Parliament by. We are hopeless, totally hopeless, at scrutinising the European legislation, regulation and spending that affects our country. No wonder people think Parliament has become a waste of space. Much of the time - and thanks in large part to the things this Labour government has done to undermine Parliament - it really is a waste of space.
If you want an idea of how bad things have got, just think about the path a piece of legislation takes before it becomes law. Number 10 dreams up a new law to get Gordon Brown a cheap headline in the media or a quick clap-line in his party conference speech.
The Bill gets sent to the House of Commons where it’s debated without diligence – because automatic guillotines cut time short. It’s passed without proper scrutiny – because standing committees for Public Bills are stuffed with puppets of the Government. And it’s voted through without much of a whisper – because MPs have been whipped to follow the party line.
We’ve got to give Parliament its teeth back so that people can have pride in it again – so they can look at it and say ‘yes: those MPs we elect – they’re holding the government to account on my behalf.’
So this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to put a limit on the number of special advisors and protect the independence of the civil service. We will give the House of Commons more control over its own timetable so there is proper time for scrutiny and debate. We will make MPs more independent, with more free votes so that they can vote as they wish and not as they’re told to. We will limit the use of the Royal Prerogative, so parliament is involved in all big national decisions. We will make sure Select Committee Chairmen and members are voted for by MPs, not appointed by the whips.
And to strengthen the place of Parliament at the heart of our democracy, I believe we should be increasing its powers over unaccountable bodies. We will make sure there is proper Parliamentary scrutiny of everything that comes out of the European Union - the laws, the regulation, the spending, the lot. And we’ll also look at giving Select Committees the power to prevent increases in quango budgets.
With these and similar reforms, we can make Parliament a place where people feel a connection to their politicians, where they know that politicians are talking about issues people want them to talk about, and where they know those politicians are fighting in their interest, not for some other vested interest. This all adds up to a Parliament people can admire, trust and have pride in – Parliament with the people in charge of it.
RADICAL REDISTRIBUTION OF POWER
But reforming lobbying and reforming Parliament are just two aspects of our comprehensive plan to fix our broken politics. We want to go way beyond Westminster and Whitehall in redistributing power in our country.
We will push power down not just from the government to parliament but from Whitehall to communities; from the state to citizens; from Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. It’s your community and you should have control over it – so we need decentralisation.
That’s why we’ll give people more local control over housing, energy, policing, schools. More power to neighbourhoods to take control and take ownership of community assets. More powers to local government to do what they wish, how they want. Powerful, directly-elected Mayors for our biggest cities.
It’s your life that’s affected by political decisions and the people who make those decisions should answer to you – that’s why we need accountability. That’s why we’ll cut the number of quangos and make sure that every one that does exist is brought well within the democratic process. It’s why we would claw back powers from the EU and make sure no future government can ever give powers away in future without first asking the British people. And it’s why we will abolish the Human Rights Act and introduce a new Bill of Rights, so that Britain’s laws can no longer be decided by unaccountable judges.
It’s your money and you should know what is being done with it – that is why we need transparency. That’s why we will put every item of government spending over £25,000 online and for all to see. We’re going to do the same for every public sector salary over £150,000. We will set government data free, and we will give the public a right to request any government data on anything they want that is currently locked up in a vault.
Everything I have spoke about today adds up to this: a new politics. Politicians as public servants. A strong Parliament. A healthy democracy. And above all, power to people.
Yes, it will be tough – taking on vested interests always is. Yes, there will be mistakes – opening up power to millions of people will not always go smoothly. But I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t believe this country was ready for change or needed this change. It is, and it does, and I promise you this: I will see it through.
But this change also needs something else. It requires a change in the attitude not just of politicians, but of the media too. I want to see a whole new culture of responsibility from those who report the news. You are the lens through which people view the actions of this Parliament. That gives you a great duty to our democracy.
I want to see a proper distinction between honest mistakes made by good, decent people whose intentions were honourable and those who set out to deliberately mislead, swindle and deceive.
Most people who pursue a career in politics do so because they want to serve and because they want to do good. That should be recognised. Parliament does important and effective work, yet it is barely reported.
And remember when you’re putting good people down, you could be putting good people off from entering politics. I’m not telling you how to do your job. I’m just saying that if you want to change politics as much as I do, this is something we’ve got to do together. We have a shared responsibility.
The plans I’ve set out today are not timid because they can’t be. Half measures cannot hope to fix what is wrong with our politics. So the reforms I’ve set out are born from radical ambitions – ambitions to restore pride in our Parliament, to return our democracy to full health, and to redistribute power as I’ve said.
But in the end it's not just about specific plans for political reform. It is about a whole new approach to politics.
I believe it's no coincidence that trust in politics has been destroyed on the watch of a man who believes that politics is the answer to everything. Who created a culture where his closest advisor in No.10, Damian McBride, spent his time, paid by the taxpayer, to mount a campaign of personal smears aimed at the families of his opponents?
We have had thirteen years of government by initiative, press release and media management and it is literally pointless. I would rather that we attempt big, serious change and fail than fiddle around with footling, meaningless promises that are never really meant, let alone delivered, limping through office and clinging to power for the sake of it.
We understand the pressure of the impatient 24 hour media and we will always fight our corner. But I know that surrendering to its time horizon is the end of trying to achieve anything meaningful and I'm telling you now that if we win the election we will get our heads down and get on with implementing the big changes in our manifesto.
You will not see endless relaunches, initiatives, summits - politics and government as some demented branch of the entertainment industry. You will see a government that understands that there are times it needs to shut up, leave people alone and gets on with the job it was elected to do.
Quiet effectiveness: that is the style of government to which I aspire. And I also know that because we believe in trusting people, sharing responsibility, redistributing power: things will go wrong. There will be failures.
But we will not turn that fact of life into the tragedy of Labour's risk-obsessed political culture where politicians never say or do anything that really matters, or really changes anything, for fear of getting some bad headlines.
This is why I really believe we are the people to fix broken politics. Because we will ditch the political culture, the political approach that has done so much to break politics and breach people's trust.
Yes we have got the plans and the policies for political reform. Yes we are a new generation that understands and believes in openness, transparency, accountability. Yes we have a political philosophy that at its heart is about taking power and control from the political elite and giving it to the man and woman in the street.
But more than any of this, we have the determination to change our political culture, build a new political approach and bury the whole rotten mess of Mandelson, Campbell, Blair and Brown. That is the change Britain desperately needs. And today, it is only the Conservative Party with the leadership, the values and the character to do it.