The expenses row and House of Commons reforms has prompted Staffordshire MP Patrick Cormack to step down, he tells Political Editor Jonathan Walker.
The Speaker of the Commons has ditched his stockings, MPs tap messages into mobile phones while colleagues are speaking and the waving of order papers has been replaced, on occasion, by a very unparliamentary round of applause.
To some, it may look like long overdue modernisation of the House of Commons. But retiring MP Sir Patrick Cormack says the loss of Parliament’s traditions and courtesies helped prompt his decision to quit.
Sir Patrick announced this week that he was standing down after nearly 40 years in Parliament, representing first Cannock and then Staffordshire South.
He has seen off deselection attempts by party activists who apparently wanted to replace him with a younger model, and come through the expenses scandal more or less unscathed.
But now he is leaving of his own accord, due largely to ill-health.
In a statement, Sir Patrick, aged 70, said: “I have recently had my third severe attack of bronchitis in two years and my doctor tells me I really ought to cut down on my normal ‘term time’ working week of 70 to 80 hours.”
But that’s not quite the whole story. The statement added: “The unhappy events of recent months in Parliament have made those hours much more of a burden than they used to be and it is also becoming increasingly clear that the new House of Commons will be very different from the old.”
Speaking about his decision, Sir Patrick revealed he wasn’t enjoying the job as much as he used to, partly because of the expenses row.
He said: “There has been a great gloom cast over the place and morale is extremely low.
“The long hours, which used to fly by, have become more of a burden.
“I have become more conscious of the fact that they are long hours and after the next election, if we have a hung Parliament or a very small majority, the demands will be even greater.”
He escaped criticism over his own expenses claims, although he has been ordered to repay “a very, very modest sum” by auditor Sir Thomas Legg.
But he was dismayed to learn that former Liberal Democrat MP Jackie Ballard, who was seen as having little respect for the traditions of the House of Commons, had been appointed to chair the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will now oversee expenses claims.
“I must say that the appointment of Jackie Ballard last week didn’t really fill me with confidence,” said Sir Patrick.
It marks the end of the tradition of Commons self-regulation – a tradition which many have criticised, but which was based on a belief that the nation’s elected representatives were beholden to nobody except their constituents.
And it’s not the only tradition to be lost. Sir Patrick said: “The new House of Commons will become very different in its composition. Different people will be there.
“But also, there has been a move away from many of the traditions. I was bought up with a House of Commons where courtesy and formality were the hallmarks. I think they will be of less importance in the future.”
As recently as 2003, the former Speaker, Michael Martin, reminded members that mobile phones were banned from the Chamber. Now, it’s not unusual to see an MP using a phone during debates, albeit to tap out text messages or use the internet rather than talking.
New Speaker John Bercow wears a business suit rather than the stockings and white ruff of his predecessors.
And on rare occasions, such as Robin Cook’s resignation in the Iraq War debate or Tony Blair’s final Prime Minister’s Questions, MPs have broken out into applause, which was once taboo in the Chamber.
Of course, some people may feel the changes are all for the better and Sir Patrick’s dedication to Commons tradition is such that he is nicknamed Sir Patrick Parliament.
But he is unapologetic.
“I speak to schools, I have a sixth-former working in my office at the moment, and young people do feel our traditions are important too,” he added.
Sir Patrick is going at a time of his own choosing, having fought off an attempt to deselect him in 2007.
He may be quitting the Commons, but Sir Patrick intends to stay active. He is involved in a number of heritage organisations and, in his role as chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, many Northern Irish bodies.
He said: “I see it as a change in direction rather than a retirement, I don’t want to just retire to the country and grow vegetables.”
* Sir Patrick's Highlights
* Sir Patrick’s Commons career included helping persuade the British government to change its policy towards Bosnia, and contributing to a debate the day after Argentina invaded the Falklands
* Speaking on Bosnia, September 25, 1992: “I am not suggesting that good men have done nothing – far from it – but we are certainly seeing the triumph of evil because good men have not done enough... day after day, week after week, and month after month for the past year or so we have seen some of the most unspeakable atrocities committed – first in Croatia and then in Bosnia – since the end of the Second World War. In fact, they are among the most unspeakable atrocities ever committed in Europe.
* The Falklands debate, April 3, 1982: “It will require greater courage to bombard or sink Argentine ships than to have landed 2,000 marines two weeks ago, which could have been done. Someone has blundered. I do not know who and I do not know how, but I have my suspicions, and they are directed inevitably – and regretfully – at both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary.”