No blow against the quangocracy

Something interesting didn't happen today.

I've just been at a very short session of the Commons' Backbench Business Committee - the famed "Dragons' Den" session - where MPs bid for debating time on issues they're concerned about.

And, rather surprisingly, no-one from the Business Innovation and Skills Committee had turned up to argue for a debate on a motion to over-rule Vince Cable's decision to appoint a university access tsar.

Why not? There are plenty of Conservative backbenchers out there who would love to cock a snook at the business secretary and, by extension, at the Lib Dem wing of the coalition.

There are also plenty of backbenchers who want an empowered Commons and are upset by Mr Cable's decision to ignore the objections of his departmental select committee and appoint Prof Les Ebdon to the post. Regardless of the pros and cons of Prof Ebdon, they want select committees to have more power to reject ministerial nominations to key posts in the quangocracy.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Prof Les Ebdon was given his job by Vince Cable - but the appointment has proved controversial

Having been snubbed by Mr Cable, I would have thought the next step for the select committee would have been to demand a debate and a vote on Prof Ebdon's appointment via the Backbench Business Committee. But when I got there, the cupboard (or rather Committee Room 5) was bare. The only application for a debate came from Labour's John McDonnell - who wanted to talk about the shift from indexing pensions from inflation as measured by RPI, to inflation as measured by CPI. (His proposal was given a slightly chilly reception, for lack of cross party support - or at any rate lack of support from coalition MPs; it sounded more like an Opposition Day debate, one member of the committee suggested.)

No member of the BIS committee was there - even though draft motions were being discussed and circulated over the weekend. So a blow against select committees' attempts to get a grip on appointments to the quangocracy went unanswered. Adrian Bailey, the Labour chair of the BIS Committee, is well aware of the uses of the Backbench Business Committee - he's used it to haul the (then) Business Minister Ed Davey before the Commons to defend the government's approach to the reform of pub operating companies. So he knows the system is there.

But he isn't very supportive of the Conservative majority, who rejected endorsing Prof Ebdon's appointment. So maybe the reason this particular dog didn't bark in the night was that the BIS committee members could not enlist their own chair in support.

The end result is now being added to an accumulating pile of mini-defeats for those MPs who want a more powerful, responsive Commons.

There's the watering down (as they see it) of the proposal to allow voters to "recall" errant MPs; there's the quiet abandonment of funding for "open primaries" in which all voters are invited to help select major party candidates for Parliament - and there's the pointed silence over plans to give MPs more traction over the business debated in the Commons through a House Business Committee, an institution which should be visibly under construction by now.

The more hardened parliamentary reformers tend to remark that changes must be enacted early, while new intake MPs are still idealistic, and before they become institutionalised. Maybe, they groan, the soft seductions of Westminster life have lulled the once-ardent new intake into complacency - and they're no longer prepared to fight these battles.

Maybe their moment has passed.

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