Cameron seeking constitutional reform

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at Tory leader David Cameron's decision to establish a Democracy taskforce to curb the powers of the prime minister rather than the monarch.

Political Editor Graham Dines looks at Tory leader David Cameron's decision to establish a Democracy taskforce to curb the powers of the prime minister rather than the monarch.

ANY self-respecting Conservative Party member who read yesterday's The Guardian would have wondered just what sort of game Dave the Rave is playing.

Ahead of a formal launch of his Democracy taskforce, Conservative Central Office planted a preview on the future role of the monarchy in the newspaper which makes no secrecy of its support for a republic with the removal of the Queen and her successors as head of state.

To Tory members, the position of the Royal Family is non-negotiable. All Tory constituency offices will somewhere have a portrait of a youthful looking Her Majesty hanging on committee room walls.

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So just why is self-confessed Dave the moderniser apparently flirting with the pinko anarchists in our midst and daring to suggest the Queen should be stripped of many of her traditional constitutional powers? Should Tory activists be wondering if they have made a massive mistake in electing a youthful Cameron as their leader? Who rewards them by cosying up to the extreme left in politics?

The plant in The Guardian was a means towards the endgame of endearing Cameron and his new look Tories to the so-called “thinking liberal elite” who chatter over supper parties in Holland Park and in their weekend haunts on the coast.

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Either the spin doctors at Conservative Central Office were being disingenuous or The Guardian was being mischievous - because far from being a closet republican, Mr Cameron is trying to preserve the constitution and the authority of parliament by curbing the powers of the executive and a presidential style of government.

As is so often the case in any party's policy launches, the devil is in the detail. And by reading the small print, voters will find that there is no suggestion that the monarch's “personal prerogative powers” should be taken away.

That means that the Queen will still exercise the major constitutional roles of dissolving parliament and calling a general election, and of appointing a prime minister. She can refuse a frivolous request of a prime minister for an election, although to do so would cause a major constitutional crisis between monarch and parliament of Cromwellian proportions.

What Mr Cameron wants to do is remove the royal prerogative, whereby ministers exercise powers without parliamentary approval but acting in the name of the monarch.

He has asked his Democracy Commission, to be headed by former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, to investigate four uses of the royal prerogative: declaration of war and sending troops overseas; signing European treaties; to make appointments such as bishops and the award of honours twice a year, and to make structural changes to government, such as scrapping the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The Prime Minister did bow to Labour backbench pressure in 2003 and seek Commons authority for the attack on Iraq - a vote which, ironically, he only won thanks to the Conservative Party, including Mr Cameron, walking through the division lobby with the Government.

But at yesterday's launch, Mr Cameron said: “I believe that one of the factors causing disillusionment with politics is the decline of status and power of Parliament. Just last week, we first heard about the Government's decision to send 4,000 troops to Afghanistan in the pages of The Sun newspaper.

“Restoring trust in politics means restoring trust in Parliament and one way to do that is to enhance the role of Parliament in scrutinising the Government's decisions.”

Mr Cameron said the Conservatives were “passionately committed to preserving and enhancing the integrity of the institutions that make this country great and which guarantee our most precious British birthright: freedom under the rule of law.

“We in the Conservatives are not interested in constitutional tinkering or change for change's sake. We are passionately committed to preserving and enhancing the integrity of the institutions that make this country great and which guarantee our most precious birthright - freedom under the law.”

Kenneth Clarke, who was one of 12 Tories to vote against the Iraq war, accused the Prime Minister of creating “personal, arbitrary, presidential rule,” which “deplorably weakened” parliament, and of making the civil service little more than a tool of the Labour Party.

Abolition of the royal prerogative would restore authority to the elected Commons. And on the secondary level of Cameron's thinking, there seems much to commend his approach to the mysterious ways of our unwritten constitution and the how appointments are made in this country.

Take for example the Church of England, which was established by Henry VIII. The monarch remains its head to this day and the Queen technically appoints it archbishops and bishops.

Of course, it's not her decision. She agrees with the names chosen by the Prime Minister, who has an appointments secretary in Downing Street to make the recommendations. So Margaret Thatcher, as a practicising Methodist, had the final say in which persons became the most powerful Anglican prelates in the land.

Why should the Prime Minister appoint members of the House of Lords, the Chairman and governors of the BBC and the Governor of the Bank of England? Why should a group of people, sitting behind closed doors, choose who should become members of the supreme court, ambassadors or senior civil servants?

In the United States, such appointments have to be ratified by the Senate. A similar system in the UK would make public bodies more open and proper scrutiny would give confidence to voters that cronies of the Prime Minister or other politicians are appointed on merit and not on how much money they have given to the governing party.

If Mr Cameron ever becomes Prime Minister, he's not going to evict the Queen from Buckingham Palace. He will curb the powers of the executive and the excesses of prime ministerial power, something which supporters of all political parties should wholeheartedly support.

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