Parliament’s power surge

There’s an interesting piece in the Spectator by James Forsyth on the reassertion of parliament: an institution in decline has, since the election, begun to reassert itself, as a result of the ‘creative destruction’ caused by the expenses scandal and the massive turnover of MPs. The evidence of this revival – ‘what one might term a new golden age’ – is the flexing of muscles by select committee, specifically over phone hacking, and the backbench motions on the EU and prisoners voting. He also quotes some data on the very high rate of rebellion by Conservative MPs (wonder where they came from?).

We’re sceptical about almost all golden ages, especially when it comes to Parliament. But there’s no doubt that Parliament is enjoying a bit of a resurgence, though we’d quibble over the causes and over the time period. For one thing, this didn’t start in 2010. The Lords has been without a majority since reform in 1999, and was a growing source of frustration to Labour ministers up until 2010. Ditto the assertiveness of backbenchers and the growing importance of select committees. Easiest way to remember this: this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since the war. But before the most rebellious was the 2005 Parliament, and before that the 2001 Parliament. For sure, there has been an increase in assertiveness since 2010, but it is merely the latest stage in the growing independence of the British MP.

Also, left out of the Forsyth account entirely is the effect of Speaker Bercow. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea (especially not that of Spectator readers?), but his effect on the Commons has been positive and profound. Two of the three cases that Forsyth uses as examples of backbench influence – the debate on prisoners having the vote and the EU referendum vote – are a result of the new procedures initiated before the last election (again, therefore, not caused by it) and the establishment of a backbench business committee. But they achieved as much as they did partly as a result of the Speaker not allowing the government to move amendments to motions from the backbench business committee. Had he allowed that, it would have neutered them almost completely. Ditto for his allowing of repeated Urgent Questions, which has done much to refocus attention onto the chamber.

And last, one small point. It might well be true to say that Ed Miliband thought that by putting down a motion over Stephen Hester’s bonus he would split the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives and thus win a vote. But if true, it is a sign that Mr Miliband cannot add up. Because whilst no one party has a majority large enough to secure a majority, the Coalition collectively has a majority large enough to withstand a rebellion by every single one of the Lib Dem backbench MPs. That motion achieved what it did because of the embarrassment value of debating the issue in the Commons, not because there was any chance of a Commons defeat.