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David Cameron stole another march on Gordon Brown, with his astute plea on Sunday for independent candidates to join his party and a pledge to strengthen the powers of parliament.

The Conservative leader’s initiatives may produce more headlines than substantive change. The call for Esther Rantzen-style champions of the people to seek a Tory candidacy is aimed principally at those seats – only a few so far – where MPs are being forced out by the expenses scandal. Any successful candidates will have to take the Tory whip, which might be seen as negating the raison d’être for standing in protest at the existing system.

Similarly, the proposed constitutional reforms are mainly reworkings of established Tory policy. These include existing commitments to a largely elected Lords, a civil service act to reduce the risk of Whitehall being politicised and a cut of at least 10 per cent in the number of MPs.

Mr Cameron pledged to allow more free votes on non-manifesto issues, as well as a – potentially politically dangerous – commitment to require debates on petitions that secure more than 100,000 signatures and bills on petitions backed by at least 1m electors. Could a Tory government find itself forced to hold a debate on hanging or birching offenders?

Labour insiders are dismissive of the plans and bitter at what they see as Mr Cameron’s opportunism. Aides to Mr Brown state that he made constitutional reform a priority at the start of his premiership, as well as trying – albeit in vein – to push through changes to the expenses system. Parliamentary reforms that require the approval of inherently conservative MPs and peers are always easier to propose than to achieve. Labour’s 1997 pledge to move to an elected Lords is still mired in reviews, more than a decade on.

But such arguments cannot diminish the fact that the Tory leader has proved more nimble-footed in encapsulating and responding to the public mood than the prime minister. His reference to the Commons as a “nest of vipers” typified his politically skilful willingness to portray himself as on the side of the public against his own party.

The Tory leader has also proved relatively ruthless in dealing with errant MPs on his own side, although he admitted he could have acted faster in the case of Andrew MacKay, his erstwhile aide.

But the ultimatums handed out by the Tory high command to grandees caught in the media glare – agree to retire or lose the party whip – have been effective in deflecting some of the attacks.

In contrast, Mr Brown has appeared hesitant and inconsistent. Critics point to the prime minister’s condemnation of the “absolutely unacceptable” behaviour of Hazel Blears, communities secretary, in not paying capital gains tax, while appearing to condone similar behaviour by Geoff Hoon, transport secretary, and James Purnell, the welfare secretary. All three deny any wrongdoing or having any tax liability. So is Ms Blears being punished for her perceived disloyalty in mocking Mr Brown’s “Youtube if you want to” approach to the whole issue?

Labour appears focused on firefighting the stream of allegations against MPs, while waiting for the agenda to move on. But less than a fortnight from the crucial European and local elections, there are no signs of public attention shifting from the issue.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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